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Sunday, June 21, 2015

Unanswered questions remain about defeated conservation easement on Moraine Preserve

Or, Let me Google that for you

By Linda Felaco

In the recent town financial referendum, Charlestown voters settled a contentious debate over the 75-acre parcel on the moraine that taxpayers paid $2.14 million to buy in 2013. The neighbors to that property wanted the town to “lock the door and throw away the key” by giving a “conservation easement,” a controlling interest in the property, to a private nonprofit corporation, supposedly in order to ensure that it stayed as open space “forever.” Even though voters rejected that idea, the debate raises broader questions about exactly what conservation easements are and what they really do. 

In the run-up to the referendum, the Charlestown Citizens Alliance (CCA) and its wholly owned subsidiaries, the Town Council and the Planning Commission, made much of this issue of the easement supposedly being “forever.” But at the risk of getting all metaphysical, can anyone but God truly say something will be “forever”? Even diamonds will melt when the sun eventually explodes. Many things could still happen even if the easement had been approved: The feds could seize or purchase the property, possibly in order to turn it over to the Narragansett Tribe, which has historical claims on it; or the grantee of the easement could sell or transfer it. Or the grantee could—and probably will long before we reach “forever”—go out of business.

Indeed, that last possibility is more than theoretical, given that the grantee in this case would have been the Charlestown Land Trust, which as my colleague Will Collette pointed out in a previous article is land-rich but cash-poor. (Which also begs the question of why the Land Trust sank what was likely in the vicinity of $1500 of their scarce funds on that glossy mailer they sent to the whole town in the run-up to the election and whether they even have the resources available to enforce and maintain the easement.) Indeed, the Land Trust told the IRS that “to monitor and enforce the easement … constitutes a liability.”
The Land Trust wanted us to vote for the easement, but were they in a
position to be able to manage it if we had?

The Land Trust manages $1.2 million in land, meaning adding the $2.14 million moraine land would have nearly tripled what they currently handle. So the voters may very well have done the Land Trust a favor by not allowing them to get overextended to the point where they probably would have had to unload some properties and easements.

Given that the much larger and far better endowed Nature Conservancy has been known to hold “fire sales” on easements and conservation lands in times of budgetary shortfall—as detailed in an extensive series the Washington Post published in 2003 on conservation easements—what greater assurance of “permanent” protection could the Charlestown Land Trust possibly have offered us than what we’d already granted ourselves through the town purchase of the land? If Charlestown were a business, it would be a much larger and more profitable one than the Land Trust, which contrary to popular belief is not in fact a government agency but a private nonprofit—and a very small one with no paid staff. Surely the town’s Parks and Recreation department, along with the Parks and Recreation Commission and the Conservation Commission, is in a better position to be able to maintain the preserve.

Yet according to CCA resident pundit Michael Chambers, who just so happens to live in the neighborhood abutting the moraine property, the CCA-backed conservation easement was defeated because voters were “misled” by the opponents. For instance, he says that opponents “claimed that the taxpayers would be prohibited from using the property, which was a bald-faced lie.”

Ultimately, Chambers blames himself for the defeat of the easement because he “should have identified any one of the many Internet links where [voters] could see for themselves the legal descriptions of conservation easements” (because: “let me Google that for you”). He then belatedly offers said links to try to show people how wrong they were to vote against the easement.

Funny thing, though: This alleged “bald-faced lie” is in fact shown to be true in one of those very links, which allows users to search for conservation easements by state, easement type, type of access, etc. The breakdown of the types of easements in RI shows that only 0.74%—i.e., less than 1%—of easements allow for open access.

Through further research of my own, I learned that as a general rule, conservation easements do not provide for public access, on the assumption that sensitive habitats might be compromised. In practice, what this means is that private landowners who grant or sell easements get to maintain their land for their own private use while simultaneously getting major tax breaks. We know this to be true in Charlestown as well: In the course of the Y-camp debacle, another situation in which the CCA-controlled Town Council planned to steer town-owned property to the Land Trust, we learned that most Land Trust properties can be visited by appointment only. In fact, the Land Trust is cagey about the precise location of many of its properties, giving only a map page rather than a street address, meaning people wishing to visit them would have to look up CLT properties in the town tax database and try to figure out which one was which in order to even find them.

Another of Chambers’s links raises further questions about the wisdom of granting an easement to an entity as cash-strapped as the Land Trust. He links to a document co-authored by our own town solicitor, Peter Ruggiero, that discusses the insurance and liability issues related to holding easements and stresses the importance of the easement holder establishing an endowment to make sure the needed funds are available to enforce the easement. Where would these funds come from on the Land Trust’s shoestring budget?

The links Chambers thinks would have won the day are mostly just links to databases and homepages of conservation organizations and offer no specifics whatsoever regarding the most salient issue in the whole debate, namely why a conservation easement would be needed on the Moraine Preserve when it’s already publicly owned. For that matter, why, if easements are so important, did we not simply purchase an easement on the moraine property instead of the property itself.

Indeed, Chambers links to the websites of The Nature Conservancy and the Land Trust Alliance, both of which indicate that their primary purpose is to conserve land that’s privately owned (and thereby confer tax breaks on the “donors”; more on that in an upcoming story).

Guess these are questions I’ll have to Google on my own.