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Deborah Marshall remembers when her family lost its land.
"My family came out from Philadelphia in the late 1880s. They had this beautiful piece of property on the Washington side of the Columbia River," Marshall said.
When her grandparents died, her mother and aunts inherited the land. But they couldn't hold on to it.
"My family couldn't afford to keep the property because of the property taxes," she said.
Marshall, a Juneau businesswoman, helped found the nonprofit South East Alaska Land (SEAL) Trust, five years ago. She said she didn't want families in Southeast to suffer the fate that befell her relatives.
Marshall worked with Bart Watson, who said he didn't initially think a land trust was appropriate for this area because of the abundance of public land.
"But much of the accessible land near town is private, more than most people realize," said Watson, a self-employed business consultant. "I looked into land trusts and what they can do and I felt it was worth pursuing."
SEAL Trust is one of five land trusts in Alaska and 1,500 in the United States. Contrary to a frequent misconception, land trusts don't buy land to protect it. Their goal is is to help landowners establish conservation easements on their property to protect the land from future development, even if the property changes hands. A conservation easement is a legally binding document, connected to the deed, that has nothing to do with public access..EAL Trust has one conservation easement in place and at least half a dozen in progress. The regional group is working with a Juneau family on a 92-acre parcel in Excursion Inlet, and on another large acreage on Admiralty Island across from West Douglas. Land in Haines, Gustavus and Kake also is slated for protection.
In the already-completed conservation easement, the landowner, who wishes to remain anonymous, wanted to donate land to the city of Juneau with certain public uses in mind. Now the land is protected in accordance with those plans, assuring the city will not sell or develop the property in the future.
Adding to the wetlands refuge
Jim King is in the process of placing a conservation easement on part of his property at Sunny Point. His land borders the Mendenhall Wetlands Wildlife Refuge and is about a mile east of the runway at the Juneau Airport. King wants part of his property to remain as wetlands and function as part of the refuge. He saw a conservation easement as the best protection for the land.
"Properly done, it's a legal document that will prevent a future owner, or myself, from destroying the natural characteristics," he said.
King, a retired waterfowl biologist who helped establish the refuge years ago, simply could have donated the land to the refuge. But he was concerned that wouldn't be enough.
"When the refuge legislation was written, it had all kinds of provisions allowing road-building and airport expansion, so really, contributing land to the refuge is not really protecting land. So that's where it's nice to work through SEAL Trust. It's additional protection," King said. "I think we're pretty close to finalizing."
When King puts his waterfront land under the restrictions of a conservation easement, the potential for lucrative development is eliminated and the land won't be worth as much. That provides a break on his property taxes. And down the road, the property his heirs inherit will not have the same dollar value.
That's the kind of tax break that would have helped Marshall's relatives keep their land.
"This is often the most compelling place for most landowners estate or inheritance tax," Watson said. "On the death of the owner, it can be as high as 55 percent of total assets. So for example, someone who acquired land long ago at a low rate, like a homestead, that's common in Southeast, at death that land has full development value."
Watson said families that find themselves land-rich and cash-poor don't have the money to pay the inheritance tax. They're forced to sell.
"That's been a powerful force in developing and subdividing land, even if the family wishes to keep it in its pristine state," Watson said.
Heirs who want to inherit a valuable piece of property could resent restrictions that reduce the value and sale potential. But Jim King's son James said he agrees with his father's decision.
"I look at it as that's his land, and for him to do as he wants," he said. "I share a similar value to the wetlands, to have that space to duck hunt and see the birds out there and to have that so close to town," James King said.
The conservation easement is applied to about an acre, the strip that borders the state refuge. The upland 3 acres, where King's home sits, is not restricted.
"He was very conscious of his kids and their desire to maybe live out there. So his actual land could be developed," James King said. "I have two sisters, and there's room for all three of us to build a home out there and he hasn't done anything to prevent that."
Not just cutting taxes
Land trusts and conservation easements are not about tax breaks, said Barb Seaman. Seaman is the executive director of Kachemak Heritage Land Trust in Homer. Established 11 years ago, it was the first land trust in Alaska.
She said while tax cuts may be an incentive for some property owners, conservation easements are intended to protect property from major development, not simply provide tax cuts. Sometimes, they don't even provide tax breaks.
uch was the case with Yule Kilcher of Homer, a former state senator and grandfather of pop singer Jewel. He was the first person in Alaska to place a conservation easement on his land. Kilcher's 660 acres on Kachemak Bay is a working farm and spectacular waterfront property. About 10 years ago, when he was in his mid 70s, Kilcher worked with Kachemak Heritage Land Trust to preserve a way of life on his land.
"Yule's purpose was to make sure it was always there for his kids to farm and live on. He wanted them always to have that place," Seaman said. "The property taxes weren't reduced significantly because they allowed for a lot of development."
That included farming, home-building potential for his eight kids, expanding farming fields, building new tractor trails, some logging, establishing grazing fields and constructing farm buildings. But land subdivision outside the family and commercial development are not options.
"It's a controlled plan, but they are able to do quite a bit," Seaman said. "The landowner makes the choices about the prohibitive uses and reserved rights those two encompass everything that can happen or will never happen on the property."
A conservation easement doesn't simply serve a landowner; it must serve the public good as well. When a landowner approaches a land trust with a proposal, four aspects are considered cultural, scenic, habitat for wildlife and recreational value to the public.
Marshall, the trust founder, said a Sitka developer recently approached SEAL trust with a proposal to place a conservation easement on 10 acres of land, to be subdivided into 1-acre parcels and developed as housing.
"It was just for the tax break," Marshall said. "We turned it down."
Seaman said she was listening to a call-in radio show in which a listener characterized land trusts as, "Scams for rich people to avoid paying taxes." She was outraged.
"The IRS looks pretty closely at scams," said Seaman. "If an easement is attempted that will enhance the value of a development, that probably won't fly with the IRS."
Bruce Baker, a natural resource consultant who works with SEAL Trust, said there are cases in which a conservation easement can increase, not decrease, the value of land. If a landowner has 10 acres, a conservation easement on 9 acres of the property could create a valuable package a small, developable piece of land guaranteed to neighbor permanent wildland.
Baker said the trust would have to see major benefits to the public to justify helping that landowner with a conservation easement.
"The first and foremost reason is protecting the conservation values," Baker said.
The federal government keeps an eye on land trusts like SEAL Trust for just those reasons. Watson said the IRS has been very stringent in how land trusts are formed.
"They want to see a solid and diverse board of directors, a certain level of public support, and if anything should happen to a land trust, those conservation easement will be transferred to another trust for monitoring," he said.
Marshall said property that has high recreational value and public access is the easiest to establish conservation easements on. But landowners don't have to open their private property to the public and usually do not. The land trust may believe that a scenic viewshed along the Mendenhall River, for example, is still in the public good even if it's closed to public access.
Property that provides usable habitat for wildlife is often a good candidate for a conservation easement, but often landowners overestimate the habitat value of land.
"People have come to us frequently with small parcels of land in the middle of a development, and we turn them down because we can't guarantee that we can protect the conservation values, or there really aren't conservation values on the property," Seaman said.
Protecting the owners' interest in land preservation over time and monitoring the conservation easement is the other major duty of the land trust. Baker said the land trust enters into a legal obligation with the landowner to ensure the terms of the conservation easement are adhered to.
"There could be someone down the line who sees these as a nuisance to be circumvented," he said.
Baker's duties include site visits to properties to check up on the land.
Marshall said in one case a land trust in Vermont discovered someone had built a house in violation of the terms of a conservation easement. The land trust took them to court and forced them to move the house off the property.
"The restrictions with conservation easements have a good track record across the country of standing up in court," Baker said. "They are a powerful legal instrument for protection."
"There are a few ultraconservative forces that have attacked land trusts as just another lock-up," Watson said. "That's on the national scene. I don't know of anything like that locally."
Watson said some people could be concerned about the loss of tax revenue to the public coffers, although again, he hasn't heard of any direct complaints.
"It generally does not follow that there's a net reduction to the community. Generally, other (neighboring) land becomes more valuable. It adds at least as much value to the neighborhood."
Juneau City Assessor Tom Pitts agreed.
"The surrounding property can go up in value, because there's this big greenbelt around it," Pitts said.
Some land trusts in Colorado have been criticized for this reason, as a ploy for investors to drive up the value of the developable land in areas where such land is limited. In some of these cases, land trusts have paid ranchers to place conservation easements on their property. The ranchers continue to raise cattle on the private land, get a cash payoff, and development of the land is restricted.
SEAL Trust has not paid any landowners to place conservation easements on their land. Baker said SEAL Trust does not endorse any particular land use agenda. That's up to the property owners.
"We're neither advocates nor opponents of building," he said.
The future of SEAL Trust
Establishing a conservation easement is a slow process. Jim King has been working on his for more than two years.
"Turns out these things are a little more complicated," King said. "We're working on it but haven't finalized it."
Building public awareness is a long process as well.
"A lot of people hear about land trusts and conservation easements, and it's in the back of their head. Then a few years later they call and we do a site visit," Baker said. "It can take years before an individual property owner decides to go through with it. And there are upfront costs."
Generally, the landowner pays for surveys and legal work, and the land trust asks for money that goes into a fund for the long-term monitoring of the property. SEAL Trust received some money from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for wetlands protection, and was able to use that to help cover the expenses with the King project. King said lawyers also donated time for much of the legal work. But every case is different. Marshall said SEAL Trust plans to develop a fund to help offset some of the upfront costs to landowners.
Watson said the land trust could have major applications for Native corporations.
"There's this builtin tension with Native corporations, with respect to shareholders desire to preserve traditional uses on land cultural, subsistence, or sacred, and the desire of shareholders to make money," Watson said. "A conservation easement may be a way to address that."
Riley Woodford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org