By Donella Meadows
–January 8, 1987–
A few days after Christmas, neighbors from 11 rural households in Lyme, New Hampshire, gathered at Hank and Freda Swan’s house for an easement-signing party.
Family by family, they put their names to 20 different documents, amendments to their deeds, limiting forever the number of lots that can be subdivided and houses that can be constructed on their land. Together the easements will protect about 400 acres of farmland, forest, stream banks, and scenic views, along two miles of road frontage.
Conservation easements separate the rights of land ownership into two categories, use rights and development rights. The use rights — to live on the land, farm it, log it, sell it — remain with the owners. The development rights — to subdivide, build, pave — are eliminated.
To be enforceable, a conservation easement has to be conveyed to another party, usually a land trust, a town, or a conservation organization. The Lyme easements went to the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests (SPNHF). The SPNHF has the right to monitor the land, to be sure the easement’s restrictions are observed. It can take legal action if the restrictions are violated.
Easements do interesting things to land values. If you put a conservation easement on your land, you will likely reduce its market value. But you may increase the value of your neighbor’s land, by protecting a view or stream or wildlife area.
Though the neighbors in Lyme essentially gave each other easements for Christmas, the net result was a loss in land value. Most simply took their loss as a charitable gift to the nonprofit SPNHF. Others couldn’t afford to do that. Their easements were purchased by contributions from townspeople in Lyme.
But economics were a secondary consideration, the folks at the party told me. “I don’t think any of us thought about money when we agreed to the easements. We did it for the land. I did it for my grandchildren, so this road will be as beautiful for them as it is now. After we knew we would do it, then we looked at the financial implications.”
It’s fairly common for a single landowner to adopt a conservation easement, but it’s rare for a whole neighborhood to do it. When I asked how the Lyme project began, I got three different answers.
Some people said it started when Shine King put his farm up for sale. The developers began to calculate how many houses could be fit onto the fields. The neighbors began to wonder how that land might be kept in farming.
Freda Swan was another starting point. She had learned about easements in the League of Women Voters many years before, and she had been thinking about protecting her property and asking some of her neighbors to join her.
But Freda says that Don and Keita Metz really got the ball rolling by putting an easement on their Connecticut River frontage.
However it started, there was a lot of activity between Labor Day and Christmas. There were neighborhood meetings. Vicki Smith, a land-protection specialist, sat down with each owner to design an easement that fit that person’s desires and that land’s capabilities. Freda Swan assembled land surveys, raised money for the purchased easements, and constantly injected energy into the process. An appraiser started figuring out the value of each parcel with and without development rights.
By Christmas nearly every easement was ready. The Shine King farm was divided into six large parcels, all protected by easements, some purchased by neighbors, some by the Lyme Hill and Valley Association, a local land trust. Shine is going to go on farming it. On the entire 400 acres just eight more houses will ever be permitted, and four more apartments in existing structures.
At the party I asked the neighbors what they thought other people ought to know about their project. Don Metz said, “They should understand that we aren’t all one kind of person. Some of us own 65 acres, some just 5. Some are retired, some are young couples just starting their families. Some are natives, some newcomers. This isn’t just a project for rich people or flatlanders.”
Freda Swan added, “I wouldn’t want to say that everyone should do this. Neighborhood easement projects should be in the interest of the whole community. This road was selected by the town as a Scenic Road. People hunt and hike here. There are historic houses, wetlands, farmlands. If you look at Lyme, where the main roads are, where the growth is occurring, you see that this is one area that should be protected. Not just for us, but for the whole town.”
Another neighbor said, “People should know that it’s hard work. You have to know the land, look at its potential, ask what’s best for it and what will be best 100 years from now. It takes a lot of thinking.”
“Why should you,” I asked, “be the ones to dictate what will or will not happen to this land? Why should you have the right to limit development for future landowners?”
“Well, people who develop dictate the future. They limit the options for farming, forestry, wildlife, peace and quiet. Landowners impose on the future of the land in lots of ways. We’ve just chosen a way that preserves its beauty and productivity.”
“Actually, we feel pretty good about it. We think people in Lyme 100 years from now will too.”
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1987