Conservation Easements that Work

Just as biologists count the number of fish in a body of water to gauge how clean the water is, a rural community can count its barns to understand how well it is preserving the integrity of its landscape.

If you live in Southern Appalachia, chances are that you pass quite a few barns on your drive home from work. Maybe there’s a barn that marks the turn onto your road, or a cow pasture that you glance at every time you pass. Whatever charm your community’s unique landscape holds is likely linked to the agrarian history of the region, one that is being encroached upon at unprecedented rates.

According to North Carolina’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the statewide conversion rate of forests, farms and rural lands is increasing every year. In the five-year period between 1992-1997, the state experienced a 67 percent increase in development over the previous decade.

The percentage is large, but it would seem even larger if even a few of the annual 156,300 acres of rural land lost to development in the state were visible from your front door or included the demolition of the barn marking the road you turn down on your way home.

Fortunately, conservancy organizations in North Carolina are actively working to save the rural landscape. One such organization is the Blue Ridge Rural Land Trust based in Boone, North Carolina. BRRLT has a mission to “preserve rural communities and culture in northwestern North Carolina through the preservation of the land resource on which they depend.”

BRRLT and its director James Coman have been involved with many major projects involving pristine wilderness lands, but the organization is also dedicated to preserving other aspects of rural communities, including farmland.

Coman said, “Our primary focus is on working farms and working forest. We have just under 4,000 acres in easements and by the end of 2004 I’m projecting we’ll have 6,000. It means that these tracts will remain productive. They can be used for agriculture however the landowner wants, but it will not be subdivided.”
Kelly Coffey, vice-president and co-founding member of BLRLT said, “We are trying to preserve not only areas that are remote. We’re trying to preserve the landscape we live in on a day-to-day basis.”

How land trusts work

A land trust, such as BRRLT, preserves the rural character of the landscape through purchases of property integral to the integrity of a community as well as through land donations. One of the most common donation methods is through conservation easements, in which the property owner exchanges development rights for a long-term stewardship plan developed in partnership with BRRLT.

When private owners place their land in a conservation easement, they do not necessarily have to give up control of the land. The land trust will protect the property from development while the landowner retains the rights to use the land, sell the property to another party or deed it to heirs.

The property remains privately owned and subject to county property taxes, but landowners who donate an easement typically realize significant state and federal income tax benefits. In many cases, the fair market value of the land donated is considered a tax-deductible donation.

The tax benefits for landowners who donate land or a conservation easement to BRRLT are often substantial, but Coffey has found that the financial benefit of the donation is not generally the property owner’s principal incentive. He said, “Their primary motivation is their concern for the future of the land.”

Various incentives

Coffey himself is a 12-acre land donor. No set amount of acreage is required for a conservation easement. He said, “There’s no magic number. You may have a small acreage that’s strategically located that would be worth saving, or you may have a large piece of land that’s already too developed to become an easement. It just depends.”

Coffey’s land was a case of strategic conservation. Though 12 acres is on the smaller side of what BRRLT usually considers, Coffey’s farmland is adjacent to the Blue Ridge Parkway. In fact, it’s a feature from a high lookout point between the highly visited tourist communities of Boone and Blowing Rock, making it a high priority for scenic preservation value.

To Coffey, knowing that his farm, which has been in his family for an estimated 120 years, will be saved from the increasing development rates of his home county of Watauga is worth more than any short-term financial gain from selling his family’s land to developers.

The communal responsibility of preserving land ingrained in Coffey’s ideology did not come from a single lightning-strike sort of epiphany. It came from a lifetime of appreciating the land and learning from it.

He said, “I’m asked all the time, why did I do this. Well, I don’t really know how to answer that. It’s just a personal obligation. I want to maintain a viable rural community. There’s no dramatic story of inspiration. I just wanted to do my part.”

Conservation and community

In a similar fashion, most conservation does not come from the designation of large swaths of land by the National Park Service. It comes from landowners across the region. And it comes in different patterns – the greens of forestlands, the browns and reds of fields.

There are swaths of land that are like antique quilts best left alone to be enjoyed only through viewing. There are also patches of land that serve the community best when they are being used, like the thickest quilts that are best loved when they’re being used.

Conservation easements do not necessarily mean that land must be locked away. Each easement is as unique as the landscape it preserves and most include concessions to modernity and its financial pressures.

Depending on the size and character of the land, easements may allow selective timbering, agricultural use, maintenance of water impoundments, hunting and fishing and even the construction of new homes. Coffey said, “It varies from easement to easement, but a lot of them will have a building envelope showing that a structure can be built there in the future.” When someone builds on an easement, the home site is strategically placed to prevent unnecessary access roads and fragmentation of the land.

“When we think of community, we think of people, but it’s ultimately the land that defines community,” said Coffey. “Maybe it’s a particular view or large farm, a barn, a combination of trees, streams and hillsides. Whenever a farm or view is developed, that community loses its identity, maybe partially maybe totally. It’s a subtle change you don’t realize until it’s too late.”

Preserving a rural way of life

While much of the land preserved by BRRLT is an oasis for rare and threatened animals, the human communities of BRRLT’s coverage area benefit greatly from their focus on cultural continuity and dedication to supporting a working rural landscape. In this era of huge agribusiness, small farmers are becoming a rare species. BRRLT is assisting them in maintaining their natural habitat. Coman said, “Most of our easements include people, not just rare butterflies and plants.”

Next time you’re driving home from work or play, count the barns you pass. Though you might not have noticed when they disappeared, there are probably a few less than there were just a few years ago.

Just as urban landscapes have structures that define specific cities, rural landscapes have structures that define their communities. Coffey said, “Barns and farmland may not be as prominent as the Capitol building is in Washington, but they’re just as important in defining community. When you see a barn, you don’t think of people, you think of the land.”

Rural means open spaces, barns, trees and hillsides, all the things Coffey explains as defining a community. He said, “The land is the basis for preserving the sense of a cohesive community. It’s dependent on the land remaining a rural landscape rather than being developed commercially or residentially.”

The loss of open space in rural areas has degenerative environmental effects that are invisible from the roads that carry you through your county. Development, which inevitably requires access roads, driveways and parking lots near water supplies, has been found by the North Carolina Department of Natural Resources to pollute drinking water. Pavement and impervious surfaces increase the risk of runoff into rivers and streams.

The number of barns and farms conserved in communities around southern Appalachia may literally affect the number of fish that thrive in their scenic rivers – as well as the environmental, physical and cultural health of rural communities.

Take Action

Coman advises landowners interested in conservation easements to contact a local organization that is a member of The Land Trust Alliance, a national clearinghouse for land trust groups. The LTA’s national standards insure that you will receive advice from educated conservationists. See the sidebar for contact information for the Land Trust Alliance and for some local land trusts in the southern Appalachians.

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