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Calling an Audible for Rural Land Conservation
Like all good football fans, we’re sometimes guilty of armchair quarterbacking, so it's natural when watching county commission meetings that we occasionally act as “armchair presenters.”
We felt this way during the Martin County Commission meeting on Sept. 14 during a presentation on land acquisition by John Maehl, Martin County ecosystem manager. Commissioners tasked him with exploring ways to use federal stimulus dollars towards the state's land acquisition programs.
Mr. Maehl identified parcels in Martin County already targeted for conservation and possible acquisition including:
The remaining parcels within the footprint of Indian River Lagoon South, a Central Everglades Restoration Plan project that includes the C-44 reservoir on the St. Lucie Canal, which comprise largely agricultural lands;
Pal-Mar, a patchwork of privately owned parcels, primarily wetlands, along the Palm Beach County border;
Loxa-Lucie Headwaters Initiative, which encompasses the headwaters of Loxahatchee and St. Lucie rivers and will connect Atlantic Ridge and Jonathan Dickinson state parks;
The Blueways coastal corridor, which, despite being in a flood zone, faces likely development within five to 10 years.
Mr. Maehl also mentioned a state program for purchasing environmentally sensitive lands, Florida Forever, as a likely source of partial funding.
While we’re fans of Mr. Maehl, he overlooked another important option for incentivizing preservation of rural lands—conservation easements.
THE OVERLOOKED OPTION
Conservation easements are an option that could be a winning strategy for everyone, including the environment, the economy, and future generations.
As defined in Florida's Rural and Family Lands Protection Act of 2008 and expanded in 2013, conservation easements enable rural landowners to sell the development rights on their agricultural lands.
Although a landowner's yield on conservation easements is generally only 50 to 60 percent of market value, the purchase positions the property to remain in his or her family upon passing. The landowner also reaps some return on the rising value while retaining the responsibilities of ownership.
A working farm, for example, could continue operations with conservation-easement funding through the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs.
Perhaps the most well-known agricultural operation preserved through conservation easements is the 40,000-acre Adams Ranch. About 8,000 acres across St. Lucie, Okeechobee, and Osceola counties are under environmental and agricultural conservation easements, helping to ensure the future of one of the nation’s largest cattle ranches and row-crop farms, while protecting its natural lands from development. Forever.
All rights to develop the property under a conservation easement are permanently waived—even if the land is handed down to heirs or sold to an outside entity. Development rights are removed, and the restrictions are attached to the deed.
The same holds true when development rights are transferred from one parcel (likely being considered for development) to a more appropriate site, such as land the county seeks to preserve. In exchange, the landowner who purchases the conservation easement receives an incentive of some kind, perhaps an adjustment in open-space requirements, or other consideration, but no taxpayer dollars are required.
So conservation easements are a win-win, particularly when you consider that the price tag to purchase just the parcels on Mr. Maehl's environmental “wish list” totals $650 to $750 million, out of reach for a county to own in their entirety, even with state and federal assistance.
THE STATUS QUO ALTERNATIVE
The county's current back-door approach to “protecting” Martin County's agricultural lands has led to decades of court disputes over property rights and millions of dollars in attorney fees and settlements, because zoning isn’t permanent. It rests with five county commissioners whose seats can change every four years.
Conservation easements make agricultural zoning permanent. Just think about the impact of that possibility for a moment.
Conservation easements give us an alternative to protracted court battles or to outright purchase – and they’re perhaps the only fair option for preserving these lands owned by others and enjoyed by all.
As armchair presenters, we’re throwing out the idea of conservation easements in hopes that Mr. Maehl will catch it and commissioners might run with it.