Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Vermont Property Owners Report, a bimonthly newsletter, published in Montpelier, that focuses on taxes, legal matters, market trends and other issues of importance to Vermont property owners. Dirk Van Susteren of Calais is a freelance reporter and editor.
Unemployment rose, then dropped. Housing prices slipped, then climbed. The Dow plunged, now it’s more than doubled. The Great Recession began in 2008, then (slowly) ended.
Through it all, Vermont’s land trusts survived and continued their mission to preserve land for productive, recreational or historic purposes.
The state’s nearly three dozen land trusts (about a third with full-time staff) found themselves tightening belts during the leaner times, but membership – a source of revenue and enthusiasm – appears to be rebounding. So is state funding.
That’s a good thing for those who want to see the state maintain its reputation as a place that sees value, both aesthetic and economic, in maintaining open landscapes, largely in the form of “working” farms and forestlands, although there are some who think enough Vermont land has been protected from development.
With 613,971 conserved acres, Vermont is No. 8 in the nation for land protected through nonprofit land trusts, according to the Land Trust Alliance, the national association and lobbying group in Washington, D.C.
In the East, only two states, New York (973,807 acres saved) and Maine (1.7 million acres) have preserved more land, according to the Alliance’s latest census in 2010.
Here’s some of what Vermont’s land trusts are reporting:
• “We grew to as many as 1,100 member donors in pre-recession times, then we lost 300, but now we are working our way back up toward 900, and we are very focused on this,” says Peg Merrens, vice president of the Upper Valley Land Trust, serving 45 communities in Vermont and New Hampshire.
• “The Great Recession definitely affected us. There was less membership, less conservation projects and less people donating,” says Carl Robinson, hired two years ago as executive director of the Middlebury Area Land Trust, after the position had been left vacant for two years.
Robinson reports his organization “is back on track.” Last year the Middlebury Area Land Trust conserved 100 acres of woodlands and wetlands in Cornwall and has raised money to preserve 100 acres of agricultural land in Weybridge.
When it comes to land preservation, the granddaddy organization, established in the mid 1970s, is the Vermont Land Trust, now with 5,000 members, and a full-time staff of 45 working in a main office in Montpelier and regional offices in Bennington, Brattleboro, Richmond, St. Johnsbury and Waitsfield.
The Vermont Land Trust has a statewide focus and spends $6 million to $8 million a year on preserving land, usually by purchasing, or accepting, legally binding conservation easements.
Over the years, the Vermont Land Trust has helped safeguard the future of 750 farms, along with hundreds of thousands of acres of forests, which are important for wildlife habitat as well as wood products, recreation and tourism industries.
Landowners who donate or sell conservation easements to a land trust sign contracts agreeing they won’t develop the acreage in specific ways, and in return often qualify for a lower property tax assessment, or sometimes federal and state income tax deductions.
(Many such landowners also take advantage of the state’s “current-use program,” which allows larger parcels to be assessed at their current farm or forestry use value, not on their “estate” value or their future value for development.)
Land trusts receive funding from various sources, including membership dues, private donations, contributions from philanthropic foundations, and from federal programs, such as the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.
In Vermont, though, a major funding source is the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, which was established by the Legislature in 1987 for two purposes: “to create affordable housing for Vermonters and to conserve and protect land of primary importance to the economic vitality and quality of life of the state.”
Dennis Shaffer, vice president of stewardship at the Vermont Land Trust, says federal funding during the recession generally held steady, but “has been stressed” of late because of recent budget concerns in Washington.
Funding for VHCB, he says, has “waxed and waned” over the years, but “in general it has been very robust … and we continue to fare well in the Legislature.”
The Vermont Legislature approved Gov. Peter Shumlin’s proposal to increase funding for VHCB by 7 percent last session. In fiscal year 2015, the VHCB budget will be $15.3 million. In 2010 and 2011 when the impact of the recession was being felt, VHCB received appropriations of $8.1 million and $11.1 million.
Roughly 43 percent of VHCB’s current budget is to be spent on conservation, while 57 percent will go toward housing. By statute, VHCB is funded by 50 percent of the annual projected property transfer tax revenues.
The Vermont Land Trust is the biggest recipient of VHCB funding. Shaffer says in recent years the land trust has received $6 million to $7 million a year from VHCB for easement purchases.
But land trusts, especially those that are community-based, do more than buy easements to keep land productive. With help from local governments and private donations, they sometimes purchase land outright to serve the community, whether as a nature area, a trail network, or an historic site.
The Stowe Land Trust, for example, which has conserved 3,500 acres in Stowe, Waterbury and Morrisville, owns and manages five properties with trails for hiking and cycling, according to executive director Caitrin Maloney.
The Middlebury Area Land Trust has easements on several trails. It complements this with outdoor programs, even a summer camp for kids.
In addition to buying easements to protect farm and forestland, the Upper Valley Land Trust maintains a half dozen camp sites along the Connecticut River, organizes programs to combat invasive plant species, and operates an online store.
Land use and tax issues in the Legislature and in Congress are a concern for land trusts.
This past legislative session lawmakers in a House committee considered a bill, S.119, that would have established a legal framework for amending easements after they have been sold or donated to a land trust.
The measure, which eventually died in the House, was supported by the Vermont Land Trust, but created a huge stir among its members and others in the environmental community who worried it might someday allow for development of land that the easement grantees had assumed would remain free of buildings, roadways or anything else that required construction.
In Washington, D.C., the U.S. Senate is considering a bill that would renew a law that expired last year that allows for significant federal tax benefits to those who donate a conservation easement.
The measure actually goes further than the original legislation that was passed in 2006.
The current bill asks for an increase in the maximum deduction a person could earn for donating an easement, from 30 percent of adjusted gross income in one year to 50 percent.
The national Land Trust Alliance fully backs the measure and has asked the hundreds of land trusts across the country to contact their members of Congress in support.