By Donella Meadows
–April 21, 1988–
There is a land trust explosion in the United States. More than 500 private land trusts have appeared over the past 20 years. They are a new addition to a community’s bag of tools that guide growth to express the community’s values rather than just the private developer’s.
Most people learn about land trusts when they are confronted with a crisis. That’s how I learned.
In 1983 over 300 undeveloped acres at the edge of my village went up for sale. Part of it has been growing hay or corn for as long as anyone can remember. The rest rises in forested hills with beautiful views. People hunt, ski, and hike there. At one edge is a trout stream, whose aquifer is a major water source for the village.
I would have bought the land if I could have afforded it, just to keep the field in corn and the hills in deer. I thought of getting some neighbors to buy it jointly, but I didn’t know how to begin. But in that thought — joining resources to preserve land that few could afford alone — I had stumbled upon the idea of a land trust.
The field was zoned for 1-acre lots and the hills for 5- and 7-acre lots. Altogether the zoning plan permitted 60 houses on the land. The developer who bought it said that was what he intended to build.
In desperation, we called in a land trust, the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. It went to work using two land protection tools, the bargain sale and the conservation easement.
The Society reached an agreement with the developer to buy the land at less than its full-market value. That was a bargain sale. The developer counted the difference between the sale price and the appraised price as a charitable deduction to the Forest Society. The Society took a commercial loan to buy the land.
After considerable discussion with the community, the Society resold the land in three parcels. One small field went to an abutting landowner with a strict conservation easement — an addendum to the deed permitting agricultural use of the land, but forbidding any subdividing, building, dredging, mining of topsoil or gravel, roadbuilding. That easement will be part of the deed forever, no matter who owns the land. Another piece was sold to the town for a cemetery extension and a park. The major parcel, including the cornfield and the forested upland, went to a private buyer, with a conservation easement allowing only one future subdivision, only two houses to be built on the land ever, neither on the cornfield.
The three sales allowed the Forest Society to repay its loan and recoup its expenses. The Society holds the responsibility to enforce the easements forever. It must monitor the land to be sure that no unauthorized building or digging or subdividing takes place. If someone does violate the easements, the Society has the right and obligation to take legal action.
Conservation easements protect keep protected land in private hands, which usually means it is lovingly managed. They also keep land on the tax rolls, which towns like, but at current-use valuation, which landowners like. Each easement is designed after careful study of each parcel of land, so it reflects that land’s special characteristics.
Conservation easements also create a whole new land market. When land is deeded undevelopable, it is no longer attractive to speculators. It only appeals to people who want to farm it or log it or live on it. Those people may bid against each other for protected land, but they don’t have to bid against developers. That gives them a chance to acquire land at a cost that makes sense.
People in our valley were so impressed by that land deal in our village that they formed a local land trust to do it again — we are part of the land trust explosion. The Forest Society and other nearby trusts helped us get started. They didn’t view us as competition but as partners in the work of protecting the land.
Zoning is the first bastion of public control of the development process. It can be a powerful tool, especially if it is applied with scrupulous fairness and unwavering firmness. But by nature it has to paint large areas with a broad-brush — 1 acre lots here, 5-acre lots there. And of course it is a police-power tool, imposed on the private landowner for the sake of the community.
A land trust can fine-tune the zoning plan, stipulating the best use of the land in detail. It has no police power. It can only buy, sell, or apply conservation easements to land with the help of willing landowners. And it is surprising how many landowners are willing, how many come to our trust saying they want to be sure that this field or that hilltop will stay open and beautiful forever.
People sometimes tell me they’re worried that zoning or conservation easements will tie up all the land and strangle growth. If I could drive them around to the places with the strongest zoning and the most active land trusts, I could put that worry to rest. The forces on the side of private growth for private profit outweigh enormously the forces on the side of public control, and, barring a total change in American culture, they always will.
No tools available to communities now are strong enough to stop growth. They can only guide growth to lands that can best support it and away from lands that have other important purposes. Land trusts are a useful addition to that guiding process. They will never dominate the land market, but they can help restore a balance between public and private, short-term and long-term uses for the land.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1988