Friday, March 26, 2010

Way too long

"This is a working truck" was the explanation the rancher gave me yesterday. As we toured his 200 + acre farm he highlighted different land features with remembrances. His father had been born in a dugout on the edge of what the family called the 'old field'. He talked about the yearly floods that changed the landscape as the river escaped its banks. "That all ended when they built the dam" he mentioned as we stopped next to a grove of towering cottonwood trees.

It resonates everytime Utah Open Lands visits with a landowner and tours the land. What is lost to development is more than the prime farm soils, scenic vistas, wildlife habitat, open space. What is lost is a connection. I imagined the number of grandchildren that had heard the story of how grandpa almost lost the family draft horse while checking fence lines one wet spring. "This was the very spot where we both began to swim" he said.

As we ended the tour and discussed the possibility of preservation, I knew that I could only promise to look at funding options and get back to him. This was the beginning of a dialogue that would take months and perhaps years. For this rancher somewhere upwards of 80 years old, it couldn't happen soon enough.

Friday, February 12, 2010

As stated previously the legislation to utilize rollback taxes to purchase agricultural conservation easements is a wonderful idea, but the glitch is the termination clause within the legislation. The IRS has filed a claim that a couple in Maryland who granted a bargain sale agricultural conservation easement and then claimed a tax deduction on the value they donated is not valid because the legislation that created the Maryland program allows for termination of agricultural conservation easements. There is not a challenge to the claim of value but rather that the easement is not perpetual. Here is the clause in question that is in the Maryland conservation easement. “This easement shall be in perpetuity, or for so long as profitable farming is feasible on the Grantor’s land.”

Utah Open Lands was granted its first agricultural easement in 1997. This land wasn't just good dirt to grow things on, it was prime farmland soil capable of some of the best crop production. When the landowner who donated the conservation easement passed away the estate received the estate tax benefits because the conservation easement met the requirements under federal law 170(h) for conservation easements which requires that the duration of the conservation easement be in perpetuity. The land wasn't farmed for several years but the scenic and wildlife values of the property were defended by Utah Open Lands when the organization was sued by a third party trying to break the conservation easement. We prevailed and the conservation easement remained intact.

Utah Open Lands defended the protection of that land first and foremost because of the intention of the landowner to see it protected, but also because of its agricultural value even though it wasn't always being farmed. That farm will now be used in part for Salt Lake County's Urban Farming program. Had that agricultural conservation easement contained a clause of termination similar to the one in question or available under this proposed Utah legislation, it might not be available today for our long term sustainability and food security.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed

I missed a day of blogging and today has been crazy as well so this post is late. Yesterday Utah Open Lands added a new board member which is a phenomenon that never ceases to amaze me. Board members volunteer their time, raise money for the cause, take on weighty issues and even delight in doing this. Running through the expectations Utah Open Lands has for our board of directors, I was awestruck by the collective good will of the Utah Open Lands board of directors. This new board member didn't even flinch. He thanked myself and the other board members for the opportunity to serve this cause.

The phone rang towards the end of the day. The call was from a landowner who has over 1500 acres of land. He was interested in a preservation solution. When I began this work 20 years ago, I remember many doubting that landowners would be interested in preserving their land and some even questioning if this was an affront to private property rights. In reality, conservation easements are one of the only ways that a landowner can exercise their private property right to preserve their land.

As with every property UOL protects the process of preservation takes time. It takes a commitment to a vision of the land focused on the conservation values, and the best way to ensure the protection of those values. For the landowning family often it is a commitment to a land legacy that has been passed from one generation to the next where the connection to the land is a connection to family, place and community.

Today, I reached out to a previous board member who has a tremendous expertise when it comes to conservation easements. As always she responded right away providing answers to my questions with the thoroughness I had come to expect from her when she was on the board and hopefully I always remember not to take for granted. Tonight I will read up on some tax cases.

One acre at a time. Our constant commitment is this responsibility, this investment that we all make in our quality of life, recognizing that saving a critical landscape to day, may be priceless to the quality of life for future generations

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

No Laughing Matter

The fox greeted us again as we went out to check on the site of the violation. This time I was with the landowner. There had been no further disturbance, but the change to the land was no less impressive this time around. I noticed this time however that the land not under a conservation easement on the property's other boundary had not been touched. Was there more respect for that landowners set of rules for their property?

Now comes hard part. There has to be a remedy to the violation. It will be a fight. The violator will undoubtedly claim ignorance. And the extent of the damage has to be fully examined. The amount of time spent just documenting and evaluating the violation so far has placed a drain on Utah Open Lands' resources. It has kept me up at night.

It is beyond frustrating and hard to write about without using a lot of expletives. Therefore, that's about all I can post for now.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Where Consensus and Balance Meet

Agreement, rather 100% agreement is often times sought but rarely achieved. Is it possible? Does it matter? How this plays into open space protection is simple, often everyone can agree that preservation is better than the alternative of development for certain landscapes, but open space as a term means different things to different people. For some passing the pastoral farm field is sufficient, for others unfettered public access is required.

Within the constructs of a conservation easement even the conservation values are not always in agreement. Some conservation values are dependent on certain conditions on the landscape remaining the same and overtime, climate change, natural floods and droughts can change those conditions. More pertinent to the agreement of conservation values within the conservation easement are that certain values can be in conflict with other values. Agriculture and public recreation don't always play well together. Public recreation and wildlife habitat are at times at odds. Even the scenic value of a setting can be impaired by other conservation benefits. It is a balance.

As communities struggle over the diverse and equally important uses of land the key comes back to this balance. Some places need to be off limits to human intrusion. This is not some man versus nature idea, but rather the reality that we all want the freedom to off leash our pets, or bike, or horse back ride in areas where, as my mom used to say, "think of what this place would look like if everyone was allowed to do that." Sometimes the right balance is based on knowing that a few bad eggs will spoil the entire quiche. In other words, we need to prove that we can be good stewards. I know lots of farmers and ranchers who will point across the fence to where the land has been overgrazed.

Of late, this issue of agreement over how lands should be used has been front and center in a number of open space discussions. Should one conservation value, wildlife habitat preservation, be paramount to another like public access. The answer is not simple, but I believe that instead of it beginning with the question "How should these lands be used", it needs to begin with "What kind of stewards do we want to be."

Balance, is something we take for granted. We all strive for it and until our health, our family, our environment is so out of whack, we don't realize how far we are from achieving it. With land preservation what everyone agrees on is once it is asphalt we can't ask the question of how it gets used.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Wolf in Sheeps Clothing

Here's an idea; lets prove something is safe instead of waiting to find out it is dangerous. This is the conservative approach. It would seem that instead of waiting for science to reveal that certain plastics are dangerous to your health that we ought not allow ourselves to be petri dishes.

Whether you are talking about saving land, or taking steps to curb global warming, or the dangers of breathing polluted air, the conservative thing to do is to take precautions. Anything else is simply gambling with our children's future. Some of the discussion this legislative session has got me wondering who are the true conservatives?

As a parent I have recently had to have the 'stranger danger' discussion with my oldest child. In reality most folks are well intended and are not bad apples. But since simply by looking on the outside we can't tell if that person is a bad apple we have to be careful with everyone and so we have fairly stringent rules meant to keep our children from harm. In other words we may not have absolute scientific evidence that the person is a danger, but we take the conservative approach that they might be.

The point to all of this. What is more radical, throwing caution to the wind and squandering our land, water and air resources assuming that the planet is not in danger, or conserving and saving our resources in case of a rainy day?

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Hole in the Bucket

Protecting farms and ranches is imperative. Food security, wildlife value, rural character, and quality of life are just some of the reasons. Paying farmers a fair price to conserve their land through a permanent conservation easement is one of the best solutions. Some have questioned purchasing a conservation easement on land as though it is some sort of subsidy. It is not. A fair price is determined and the landowner gives up forever the right to any current or future development value. The public receives the benefit of continued food production and an actual net benefit in terms of taxes versus services. Elk, deer, moose and cows, don't go to school, don't drive on the roads and don't require culinary water.

Recently Salt Lake County Council opposed HB102. The concern is that the legislation allows for the termination of agricultural conservation easements. This is a valid and important concern. Beyond the fact that in some instances the termination would allow for double dipping it could also hurt farmers who were unaware that because of the termination legislation they were ineligible for estate tax benefits and income tax benefits. This would do the very thing we are trying to guard against, put the family farm at risk. To expend public dollars for the protection of farm land is critical, but only if that expenditure is protected by a perpetual conservation easement.