Why Land Trusts?
The land trust movement has been picking up steam because the pressures on undeveloped land are constantly increasing. Every day, America loses nearly 14 square miles of open space.
Land-use conflicts have become common. For example, developers and conservationists often fight fiercely over the future of an undeveloped property. In some cases, private landowners don't want their property to be developed, but they can't afford to keep it.
To see how land trusts are uniquely qualified to help resolve these various conflicts, consider an imaginary story about the Oregon Theoretical Land Trust (OTLT).
The Story |
Max Bigg, owner of the Bigg Shipping Company, wants to build a dock on some undeveloped riverfront property he owns, where several species of endangered birds build their nests. A few concerned citizens tried lobbying the city council to block the dock project, but the city didn't want to get involved. Construction is scheduled to start in six months. How can the OTLT help?
Responsiveness. Because the OTLT is an independent organization, it can act more quickly than the city council or other government bodies. The actual process of transferring the land will be long and complex. But the OTLT is able to open an immediate, credible dialogue with Max Bigg before the conflict escalates.
Flexibility. The city council could pass a regulation to block construction of the dock, but Mr. Bigg would fight the restriction, and the case would probably end up in court. In contrast, land trusts resolve conflicts by working with landowners. Every trust agreement is unique and highly responsive to the landowner's needs.
Financial benefits. The land is actually owned by the Bigg family, not by the shipping company. If Max decides to sell his land, and buy a different piece of property to develop, he might have to pay $50,000 in personal taxes on the sale. But if Max sells the land to a trust, he will get a federal tax credit for putting his land into conservation. In this way, Max could save up to 50% on taxes.
Max thinks he should be allowed to develop his property any way he chooses. But he also has some sentimental feelings for the land, which has been in his family for over 100 years. After a few meetings with the land trust, Max starts to consider the non-financial benefits of keeping the site as a natural place-but transferring the property to the OTLT wouldn't solve his problems with docking space.
Size doesn't matter.
The city doesn't want to buy the land directly, because the property is "too small to be important." But that's not a problem for the OTLT. The trust knows that even small spaces can have enormous conservation value. (Meanwhile, the city has another problem to worry about -- their old power plant site is leaching industrial pollutants into the river.)
The last great advantage working on behalf of the OTLT is that their conservation work is highly appealing to many different stakeholders, for many different reasons. So it's relatively easy to involve other people in special OTLT projects.
The OTLT successfully negotiates a one-of-a-kind trust agreement that allows everyone to get what they want:
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- Max sells his land to the trust and enjoys a big tax break.
- The city leases the old power plant site to Bigg Shipping for $1 a year. The cost is so low that Max can afford to have the pollution removed and then build his dock.
- The trust becomes the steward of the land, now a designated urban bird sanctuary. (When approached by the OTLT, the Oregon Audubon Society and the Department of Fish and Wildlife readily agreed to cooperate on sanctuary management.)
- The people of Oregon City get to keep an open space on the river and salvage a polluted site at the same time.