Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Recognition and Tools: Conservation Easements

Local, state and federal government agencies and nonprofit organizations have successfully partnered to execute conservation easements to preserve Forsyth County’s rural heritage for future generations. Such easements employ permanent deed restrictions to limit land use with the goal of protecting natural resources, conserving open space and maintaining ecological integrity through biological diversity and high air and water quality standards. Property owners may either sell or donate easements to an entity that will then monitor the land’s use for compliance. Conservation easement donation is an allowable federal income tax deduction.

The Forsyth County Board of Commissioners created a Farmland Preservation Program in 1984 in an effort to lessen the rapid development threatening the county’s rural character. The Forsyth County Soil and Water Conservation District Board administers the program, which facilitated the protection of 27 properties encompassing 1,622 acres through purchase, lease or donation of development rights by 2002, primarily utilizing County appropriations to subsidize the $2.6 million cost. The Federal Farmland Protection Program contributed $338,000 to the initiative between 1998 and 2000. The North Carolina Farmland Preservation Program provided Forsyth County with $167,000 for two easement purchases in 1999-2000, thus allowing the Conservation Trust for North Carolina to purchase additional development rights. Two property owners have also donated easements worth approximately $46,000 on 17 acres.

Unfortunately, the recent economic instability dramatically impacted land conservation opportunities. Forsyth County’s Farmland Preservation Program has not received local, state, or federal appropriations over the last ten years. In addition, development value is usually much higher than the potential tax deductions property owners might receive for donations, so farmers struggling to make ends meet are often forced to sell their land rather than to execute easements.

The Piedmont Land Conservancy, a Greensboro-based nonprofit organization, has continued to protect Forsyth County’s open space and farmland, placing conservation easements on 11 tracts encompassing about 275 acres through bequests and purchases. The easements cover four broad property types: farmland, water resources, natural heritage areas and urban natural areas. The Conservancy’s largest Forsyth County initiative, intended to safeguard natural resources associated with the historic Moravian village of Bethania (designated a National Historic Landmark in 2001), began in 1997. The Piedmont Land Conservancy partnered with the North Carolina Department of Transportation, the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, the Town of Bethania, the Bethania Historical Society, Bethania A.M.E. Zion Church, and other local community members and property owners to acquire easements on seven tracts of land. These include Walnut Bluffs, Walnut Bottoms, Muddy Creek Floodplain, Muddy Creek Bluffs, Old Apple Orchard I and II and the former site of Cedar Grove School, which served African-American residents of Bethania and the surrounding area. Much of this acreage has been under cultivation since soon after the Moravians established Bethania in 1759.

The Piedmont Land Conservancy also holds easements on several other sizable Forsyth County parcels. In 1997, five neighbors executed a conservation easement on their jointly-owned, 56-acre natural area known as Camerille Farms, which includes a meadow, a branch of Muddy Creek and densely-wooded areas within Winston-Salem’s city limits. In 1998, the North Carolina Department of Transportation purchased 48 acres in the Friedburg community as wetlands mitigation, effectively preserving an almost four-acre habitat for the endangered bog turtle, a federally-protected endangered species. A family farm at the intersection of Silas and Muddy Creeks was protected through the donation of a conservation easement in 2001. Smaller protected Forsyth County tracts include the three-acre Lindheimer Riparian area, the six-acre Emily Allen Wildflower Preserve and the 18-acre Martin Muddy Creek Floodplain.

No comments: