Conserving farm land and open space forever

We’ve long been interested in the complicated work done by the Tecumseh Land Trust in Yellow Springs to conserve farm land and open space, primarily in Greene and Clark counties. Land trusts have become a way that some communities combat unrestrained development, and we wanted to learn more. We met recently with Krista Magaw, Tecumseh’s executive director, at her office above an old carriage house at Whitehall Farm north of the village. You can learn more at www.tecumsehlandtrust.org. — Ron Rollins

Q: What led you to this job?

A: I grew up in eastern Ohio. My dad was a Methodist minister, my mom is a teacher. My one grandmother is a farmer, and we spent summers with them while my mom was finishing college, which was my biggest connection to farming and Ohio heritage. Grandma was a big naturalist. My bachelor’s in psychology and masters in public policy led to mental health work for 25 years until we ended up living in Yellow Springs, which we like a lot. My husband and I bought an old church building to live in. I paint and collect a lot of art, so it’s great to have so much room for that. We were living here during the Whitehall Farm auction in 1999, I observed what was going on with the land trust, and thought it was a really cool organization. It was all volunteer back then, but it advertised in 2001 for an executive director, and I was tired of commuting to Columbus for my mental health job — so I became the first executive director. I hadn’t done conservation work before, but it was something I really cared about, so it felt right.

Q: The organization seems to have grown since then.

A: What really made that possible was the Clean Ohio law that passed in 2000, the ballot issue that allowed farmland preservation easements and open-space easements and created state funds to pay for them. There was a lot of skepticism at first about whether farmers and land owners would want a conservation easement on their land, or whether they’d see it as a violation of their property rights — but it turned out that the first year, we had 27 farm owners apply for them. We were pleasantly surprised.

Q: So, what exactly are the conservation easements, and how to do they work?

A: A conservation easement is a recorded document that travels with the title to a piece of property that it is placed on. It gives the current landowner a chance to restrict certain development rights. Typically, it would not allow any future subdivision, or only a limited number of property splits — so let’s say, a 500-acre farm and the owner has a couple of kids, the easement would maybe allow one split in the future. It also limits the amount of ground that can be built on, so that it allows the majority of the land to be kept for agriculture or natural habitat.

Q: Who makes those decisions?

A: The landowner decides how restrictive to make the easement. Then the land trust, our nonprofit board, has to visit the property and decide if we believe it’s really worth preserving, and everything has to be carefully documented — because the land trust is making the promise to protect this into perpetuity.

Q: How does this work financially?

A: If an easement is donated, then it’s fairly straightforward, and it can happen fairly quickly — the documents can be developed in a month or two, the board votes to pursue it and determines what the basic restrictions are. But if we have to look for funding for an easement, it’s much more complicated. Sometimes we can’t find funding, and just can’t do it.

Q: Funding from where?

A: A lot that we’ve used in the last few years has some from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service. And Clean Ohio money is the other big source (development.ohio.gov/cleanohio/FarmlandPreservation/). We apply for grants from them. It often takes multiple sources of funding to make an easement work. For instance, we’re currently working on a conservation easement for Glen Helen in Yellow Springs, and there will be six sources of funding for that.

Q: I think most people would be surprised that Glen Helen wasn’t already under some sort of conservation easement.

A: It wasn’t. Antioch University owned it, and then the re-formed Antioch College bought it back and is looking ahead to the future of the land. The original owner who donated much of it in 1929, Hugh Taylor Birch, had it arranged that the land should be kept open for enjoyment and education — or any other use that might benefit the college. But they didn’t have to conserve it, technically.

Q: How’s it going?

A: We already have easements for 563 of the 973 acres at the Glen. We’ve got all the land along the river and the creeks protected. We’re working now on the riding center areas and a lot of the road frontage. We’re real, real close. When it’s done, we’ll have $3 million in funding sources — the money goes to the college, and they’ll put it into an endowment at the Dayton Foundation as a stewardship fund to take care of the Glen. So it’s a great outcome.

Q: This seems like a good example of the kind of work you do, then.

A: This one is on a level with saving Whitehall Farm — it’s a property that is very well known, highly visible, and which the community wants to see preserved. So, yes.

Q: So, the land trust’s role is that it’s the organization that worries about conservation enough to make it happen.

A: Right, and it’s a growing area — there are 1,700 land trusts in the country. Close to a third of them are accredited, by the national Land Trust Accreditation Commission.

Q: Is this a fairly new concept?

A: A lot of them started our when we did, around 1990. Most are after 1980. There are still more being formed all the time.

Q: What was the impetus?

A: I think the rapid rate of development of farmland that really ramped up in the 1980s and 1990s was a big piece of it. Often, you saw some of the best land turned into development. In Ohio, our population pretty much flattened out in the 1970s — and yet, we’re gobbling up more and more land. Our land use has more than doubled in Ohio since our population bottomed out. So, I think people became concerned about good farm land being lost.

Q: What was the story with Whitehall Farm?

A: This 1,000-acre farm goes back to the 1840s and was originally in the Kelly family, the Springfield tire company folks. It was pretty well cared for, and some acreage had been split off over the years. The remaining 940 acres went up for auction in 1999; the family by then was spread out, and none of them wanted to live on the property anymore. More than a dozen people stood to make money from the sale, which was going to divide the farm into 34 parcels.

Q: What happened?

A: In about six weeks, the village of Yellow Springs mobilized and worked with local governments to raise $1.2 million to go to the landowners to buy the conservation easement from them, whoever bought it. The whole 940 acres were bought by Sharon and Dave Neuhardt, and now it’s under easement. The money raised gave them more buying power so that they could buy the land — it went for $3.4 million — and then preserve it. That’s not usually the way we do things. Usually we work with a farmer who already owns the land and wants to put a conservation easement on their property. We have it appraised to demonstrate the difference in the value of the land after is it encumbered vs. unencumbered. That figure is typically around $2,000 an acre, and that determines the cost or donated value of the easement.

Q: So, what the trust pays compensates them for the difference in value that they would have gotten if they had sold the land for development.

A: Right. Though usually we pay about half that value and the remaining value is used as a tax deduction. And it’s permanent. Whoever buys that land in the future, the easement stays in place.

Q: How do you enforce it?

A: We keep in touch with the landowner and schedule annual visits. We see the property and walk it, see what kind of improvements they’re making, and make sure they know and understand the terms of the easement. Most often, the people we’re working with are still farming in the area, or living on the land, or both. But a lot of the farms we protect rent out a lot of their land, and that’s something to pay attention to. Also, we have to have these reminders because we’re seeing more and more generational transfer, so you may have new family owners who are from out of town, and we have to catch them up. Usually, though, these are folks are staying in touch with us, reading our newsletters. When we have a transfer, we spend as much time as it takes for everything to be smooth. It’s better than the alternative.

Q: Which is what — taking someone to court to enforce an easement?

A: Right. And honestly, as long as we’re on top of things, that doesn’t end up happening. And that’s one of the things that accreditation stresses, that you do those site visitations regularly, document it with pictures, send updates to the landowners and any funders. If you stay on top of it, most easements are followed. And when a trust has to take a property owner to court, the trust usually wins. If it doesn’t, it’s most likely because you haven’t been doing those visits.

Q: How many properties are involved in the Tecumseh Land Trust?

A: We have 133. Our goal is to protect 50,000 acres in Clark and Greene counties, each. We’re currently at about 23,000 acres total, so where about a quarter of the way there. This is our 25th anniversary, so our theme is “25,000 acres in 25 years.”

Q: Will you make it?

A: We expect to close on our 25,000th acre this year. That goal is about a fifth of the land mass in each county — something the American Farm Land Trust has put out there as a reasonable amount of land under easement, the idea being that if you don’t have a critical mass of farmland in your county, the region can’t support the businesses that are critical to maintain agriculture — repair businesses, equipment, grain elevators. If you have about a fifth of a county’s land tied up in conservation easement and another fifth in agriculture, you’ve got a toehold of continuing to have viable agriculture in your area. And it matters, because it’s still the No. 1 industry in those two counties.

Q: Have you been moving at the pace you expected?

A: Clean Ohio totally opened the door. We had 1,900 protected acres between 1990 and 2002, and then the funding that became available from Clean Ohio picked up the pace, where we were adding 1,000 to 3,000 acres a year.

Q: Why the Tecumseh name?

A: The original board chose it. He was from this area, and they liked the connection to and the chance to honor the Native American tie to the land. Plus, we happen to have an easement on the 290-acre farm where his home was, at Old Town on State Route 68 between Xenia and Yellow Springs. It’s fun to have that as one of the properties we work with — we’ve had a couple of different Native American groups out to walk about that area.

Q: What do you like best about the job?

A: I love this job because of my public policy background. It’s constantly a task to figure out where our areas of convergence benefit multiple organizations, individuals, government entities. And so many people are interested in what we do — we’ve got a file cabinet with more than 300 property owners, mostly farmers, who are interested in conservation easements.

Q: Are there times when a landowner is interested, but it’s not the right fit?

A: Sure. Hopefully, the work we do complements other smart uses of land. We were working once with the Greene County park system when a landowner came to us interested in selling a conservation easement. It turned out it was really better for him to make a sale, that was a better deal for him. It turned out that his land was very desirable to the parks, so that’s the way he went. There are other examples. You could have, say, a 10-acre property that is pretty but not viable for agriculture. But it might also have utilities running through it and it may be surrounded by development. There, again, we’d probably encourage them to talk to the park district, rather than put down an easement. So we really want to help people do the right thing that’s best for their land, and that doesn’t always necessarily mean working with us.

Q: Where’s your funding come from?

A: Members pay more than two-thirds of our operating budget, which is a little over $200,000. We have around 500 contributors. We have three full-time staff, then some student interns and some contractors who help us with our monitoring. And we have three attorneys who donate their time to us.

Q: Are there other land trusts in Ohio?

A: Yes, about 40. Western Reserve near Cleveland is the biggest. We’re the oldest accredited one.

Q: This is a really complicated business.

A: The most frustrating thing, for us, is when government rules change. For instance, the tax benefit you can get for donating your land for easement has gone back and forth four times in seven years. And any change in administrations slows things down bureaucratically for us, on a process that can take quite a while anyway. Plus, I’m the sort of person who’s impatient with bureaucracy, and we deal with a lot of that. But I’ve come to appreciate the value of a good bureaucrat — they’re important, to keep systems working properly.

Q: What are some of the reasons people decide to do this?

A: They love the land. They care about what happens to it. The specifics of their situations vary widely. Like, there were four sisters in Clark County whose parents passed, and they had a buyer for their farmland — but they wanted it to be preserved, and so they wanted to donate an easement before they sold it. We had it all done in less than two months. They just didn’t want it subdivided and covered with houses. And we have a lot of multi-generational farmers working with us; the easements provide them with a little bit of working capital, and the tax breaks can help them, too. We work with people who know they want to sell their land in, say, five years, but they want to put an easement on it first so that it’s protected. But everyone who does this loves their land. We’ve got some 200-year-old farms we’ve protected, and quite a number of century farms.

Q: How many projects do you juggle at once?

A: We’ve got 10 properties in motion right now. We’ve got funding for them — so now we’re doing the title work, ordering appraisals, developing the actual easement language and arranging the actual closing. We’re helping 40 landowners apply for this year’s competitive Clean Ohio funding, and those applications are due in April. We’ve got a mailing list of about 800 landowners we stay in touch with. We stay pretty busy.

Q: Since all this is so complex, how much of what you do is educational?

A: At least half of what we do is general education about all this. We do a lot of events, art events, talks about nature — birds, trees, pollinators. We do a lot of community-building. We want to get people invested in the land trust as a cause. And the education is not just with landowners, but with government members, elected leaders, our next generation of our volunteers and board members. Remember that what we’ve taken on is a perpetual obligation where we constantly need to replace ourselves. It never ends.

Q: Yet you seem optimistic.

A: I am. I’m optimistic about the attitudes of our young people, for sure. A lot of students want to work with us. I’m optimistic about the fact that what we do is so bipartisan — land conservation is an issue that brings together people from both sides of the aisle, for different reasons; there’s the fundamental conservatism of taking care of the land, for farming and hunting, and the liberal interest in promoting habitat for living things. We get an interesting mixture of people at our events — people who might not often get together on the same issue, and it’s pleasing to see them coming together, all loving the beauty of the land and open space. So yes, I’m optimistic. I know it will keep taking a lot of work. But it’s a lot of fun, too.

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