Land trusts boon to preservation

THE BALTIMORE SUN

What would you say are the odds of this pair volunteering to work closely as leaders of a highly effective new environmental group?

One is president of Pepsi-Cola of Salisbury, a prominent Eastern Shore business leader whose passion is hunting deer. Using only a bow and arrow, he has killed 65 to date.

The other, a math professor at Salisbury State University until he retired recently, is a self-described radical environmentalist, with passion for animal rights. With real satisfaction, he clips articles about hunters who accidentally shoot themselves.

Of course there is more to both Pepsi's Dick Hazel and Professor Ben Fusaro than a divergence on deer. Dick is a model progressive businessman, a community benefactor and leader in areas from race relations to the YMCA and public education; and Ben was recognized by the local Chamber of Commerce for his equally long-standing contributions to the environment.

Still, they illustrate the potential of a unique forum in which they met -- a nonprofit entity known as a land trust -- one where, as Dick says: "At first, Ben and I did not agree on anything except to attend the meetings."

Together with several of us -- lawyer, farmer, activist, writer and others -- whose philosophies on environment cover the spectrum, these two have in just a few years helped preserve to date more than 2 square miles of land.

More than just land, it includes habitat for the endangered

Delmarva fox squirrel, a Native American archaeological site, a historic farm, a bird-watching preserve, a wetlands education center, bald cypress, unspoiled shoreline, agriculture -- a host of resources otherwise threatened by development.

We have done this through a land trust (the one on whose board I sit -- literally, between Dick and Ben -- focuses on preserving land in the lower Shore's Wicomico, Somerset and Worcester counties).

Land trusts can be started by a few citizens on the most local of scales and operated with a minimum of money. And the trusts can be custom-tailored to the goals of a county or region, and to the desires of individual property owners who want to preserve their land while retaining full ownership and most uses of it.

Both nationally and in Maryland, such trusts have surged remarkably. In 1950, about 50 of them existed in the whole country. By 1985 there were more than 500, and by 1994, more than a thousand.

In Maryland, eight land trusts in 1988 have grown to 43, active in all but Charles, St. Mary's, Garrett and Allegany counties.

66,000 acres preserved

They have preserved some 66,000 acres, or about 100 square miles of land, according to the granddaddy of the state's land trusts, the Maryland Environmental Trust, a quasi-private arm of the Department of Natural Resources. And that acreage should grow substantially, says MET's Nick Williams, whose job is assisting local trusts across the state.

Many trusts, he feels, are just hitting their stride, hiring professional staff, gaining recognition and developing plans that well beyond just preserving acreage.

A prime example is the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy. Less then 5 years old, it already has preserved nearly 8,000 acres and steered another 4,000 into other protection programs in five mid- and upper-Shore counties.

The conservancy, with five staff members, has developed a comprehensive, "Visions 2000" plan for the region that targets specific river basins, prime farm soils and historic rural villages.

"Just as we've got sprawl development, we've had sprawl preservation," says Rob Etgen, head of the conservancy, in explaining "the need to go beyond just getting acreage."

On Kent Island, the conservancy sponsored an innovative study by Morgan State University that looked at quality of life there a century into the future.

One outgrowth was a concept of linear parks that would allow bike and foot travel from south to north on the island, bridging U.S. 50; the conservancy plans will focus preservation efforts there accordingly.

Battlefields included

Land trusts can be quite diverse, MET's Williams says. Some in Maryland focus on Civil War battlefields; others on greenways along stream corridors or adding to existing parks.

Some can be activist, such as the Western Shore Conservancy for Protection of Natural Areas. It has been battling the Episcopal Diocese of Washington over plans to develop an old-growth forest tract, the Beltwoods, in Central Maryland.

The basic tool of the land trust, and the reason it can be such an ecumenical environmental forum, is a conservation easement.

It is a written, binding agreement between the landowner and a )) trust that restricts most development of the land. The land can be sold or inherited, but the easement stays.

Easements can be customized to each owner. Dick Hazel, for example, after sitting on our board for a year or so -- and asking every month: "Now, tell me again exactly what these easements do?" -- decided to put one on a magnificent, 526-acre block of forest land in an area near fast-developing Salisbury.

He wanted to make sure he could still hunt, that a couple lots could be built on someday; that he could harvest timber, plant food lots for game and develop fishing ponds for disadvantaged children.

All of these and other uses met the legal qualifications for an easement. Dick says his main interest was just to keep the land in a mostly natural state; but an easement also can have tax advantages for an owner. Tax deductions of between 30 percent and 50 percent of adjusted gross income each year can be taken for the difference between the land's development price and its (lower) value with conservation restrictions.

Heirs may avoid taxes

In addition, heirs may avoid some of the hefty federal estate tax bite on land whose value is reduced by an easement.

Some land trusts have gone well beyond simple easements -- buying land outright, putting easements on it, then reselling it later to private parties or governments who want to preserve it.

Land trusts and other private conservation programs in Maryland have to date preserved some 250,000 acres. Program Open Space, the state's major conservation acquisition program, has added close to 600,000 more.

It sounds like a lot. But consider that development already has usurped about a million acres of the state's total of 6.3 million acres.

Land preservation efforts, no matter how ambitious, will never preclude the need to focus current sprawl development into more compact, less destructive patterns.

Meanwhile, land trusts are a plus that just about anybody can support, even in these times of contentiousness over private property rights and growth controls.

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