Donna Morelli, BayJournal.com
Balancing land conservation with the needs of a growing community is no easy task. Some communities have tackled the problem by partnering with nonprofit land trusts — and Silver Springs Township, (PA), is one of them.
Silver Springs is similar to many bedroom communities in the area: Residents enjoy ample employment, suburban homes with mountains as a backdrop and an 11-mile commute to Harrisburg, the state’s capital.
It also has important agricultural soils that were largely covered by big box stores and housing developments in the 1990s and 2000s. Today, with few exceptions, Silver Spring is mostly built out.
“We have been the fastest-growing community in the state for several years,” said Theresa Eberly, township manager.
To save some of the remaining farmland, concerned citizens pushed for a solution. They decided that the county Agricultural Land Preservation Board wasn’t able to preserve enough of the farms and forests that are part of the community’s identity. While the program relies on a tough ranking system that preserves only farms in an Agricultural Security Area and with the best soils, it leaves out many parcels that still have local value.
So, in 2015, voters approved a ballot measure to raise their Earned Income Tax to put money toward land conservation.
“This really was a grassroots, boots-on-the-ground, knocking-on-doors effort,” Eberly said. “Without it, I don’t think it would have ever gone through.”
Three years later, the township had conserved eight properties totaling about 315 acres. Six more properties are in the works, which will add another 403 acres to the township’s tally. So far, they’ve spent $1.9 million.
The township didn’t purchase the land, but worked with the owners on voluntary legal agreements — called conservation easements — that generally protect the land from further development. Each owner retains the title to his or her property, but the easement stays with the land if it is sold. Landowners may be paid for an easement, or they may donate it.
Setting up and enforcing these easements can be complicated and expensive. Silver Spring Township, though, found a partner that made the process manageable: Natural Lands, a private land trust based in Media, PA.
A range of options
Some land trusts are state-affiliated, like the Maryland Environmental Trust and Virginia Outdoors Foundation, but many are private nonprofit organizations funded by grants and donations. Some specialize in particular types of land — such as farms, forests, property with rare or threatened species, or even small abandoned city lots where residents have created gardens. Others have expanded their scope by providing services that help municipalities manage growth and as well as land and rivers.
Private land trusts usually have more flexibility than state programs in accepting different types of easements and ownership arrangements. Some, like The Nature Conservancy, will buy land and hold the title, but most use a combination of strategies to help meet the landowner’s conservation goals.
An entity other than the landowner holds the easement, and it’s a hefty commitment. Easement holders are responsible for annual inspections to ensure compliance with the easement and must be prepared to defend it in court if there is a violation.
“Municipalities need to think very seriously about whether they are comfortable with the task of having to monitor and enforce easements,” said Andrew Loza, executive director of the Pennsylvania Land Trust Association. “Co-holding an easement with a land trust is probably preferable.”
Silver Springs was already working with Natural Lands to rewrite their ordinances to protect natural resources. With a volunteer conservation committee and just one staff person working on conservation issues, the municipality needed help to make the goals feasible. Now, the agreement with Natural Lands has township staff and volunteers working with interested landowners and Natural Lands negotiating the easements and holding them with the township.
“We’re happy to do as much or as little that makes sense,” said Jack Stefferud, senior director of land protection for Natural Lands. “There are municipalities in southeastern Montgomery County [PA] who do almost everything themselves.”
Even with a land trust partnership, saving land isn’t cheap. Some programs operate by purchasing the development rights to the land, an amount equal to the difference between the current value minus the value once the rights are removed. In some cases, the owner donates the value of the development rights, but it can still cost from $30,000 to $40,000 for surveyors, lawyers and filing fees.
The expenses don’t evaporate once the deal is done — the costs for the annual inspections and potential enforcement actions must be considered, too. Land trusts can help suggest strategies.
At work for the community
Richmond City Council member Parker Agelasto is the executive director of the Capital Region Land Conservancy, a nonprofit land trust serving the greater Richmond area. A resident of the city and enthusiastic spokesperson, Agelasto talks fast and proud about what the conservancy has been able to accomplish in partnership with city, state and federal governments.
The conservancy was formed in 2005 to fill the need for a local land trust. Around the same time there was a big public push to protect wild portions of the James River, which runs through the heart of Richmond. Even though the city owns James River Park, citizens wanted assurance that it would always be open public space, regardless of the economy or who was in office. The city council and then-mayor Tim Kaine passed a resolution to pursue a conservation easement on the park in 2000 and again in 2005.
The council approached the land trust to place a conservation easement on the park and 11 riverside parcels encompassing the park, totaling 280 acres of riverside land. By 2009, the land was protected.
The city is working with the conservancy to add roughly 113 additional acres to the James River Park system, including several private islands that are being donated to the city.
“We have this river running downtown and we have hundreds of acres buffering it,” Agelasto said. “It’s a huge attraction and has really become a defining feature of the region.”
In Loudoun County, VA, the population has grown from 100,000 to 400,000 people in the last 15 years, according to Chris Miller, president of the Piedmont Environmental Council. The council is both a land trust and an environmental organization. Loudoun is one of nine counties in which the council has been working since 1972.
With population growth came an explosion of developments that have homeowners associations and mandated open space. Miller said that presented an opportunity to work with the associations responsible for landscaping large swaths of land and to benefit the county. As those large green areas are restored with native plants, rain gardens and sometimes streamside buffers, they not only improve wildlife habitat but provide better stormwater management than traditional landscaping, which support a municipality’s stormwater plan.
“All of those common open spaces can be wildlife and bird conservation corridors and can contribute to water quality,” he said.
To find a land trust near you, visit the Land Trust Alliance website at landtrustalliance.org/find-land-trust.