Is there a need for “temporary” conservation easements?

Generally speaking residents of cites and urbanized areas applaud the efforts of rural landowners to preserve working farms and an agricultural, open space landscape in the adjoining countryside. Conservation easements carefully targeted can even begin to have some of the same growth management effects that more formal urban growth boundaries do. However, in Colorado, we have an example of two municipalities (Loveland and Johnstown arguing against a proposed conservation easement outside their jurisdiction because the land in question because it might be needed for urban development 15-20 years in the future.

Davis Conservation Project, Larimer County, Colorado

The landowner in question filed a subdivision application for a 46+ acre lot. In order to take advantage of an expedited review process option, he agreed to impose a conservation easement on half of the property thereby assuring it remains in agriculture indefinitely. Both cities point to possible infrastructure projects that might make use of the land and the possibility that a future owner might wish to develop the land for more intensive urban uses that would generate significantly greater tax revenues for the cities.

This somewhat novel dispute raises all sorts of fascinating questions. If the cities see a need for the land, have they considered acquiring it? If they don’t want to purchase it that far in advance of actual development perhaps they could lease development rights in the interim there giving the farmer an additional cash “crop”. [Note: I authored a rather elaborate leasing of development rights proposal for Loudoun County, Virginia, back in the early days of my career. The idea was to manage a more orderly transition of agricultural land on the urban fringe into more dense development.]

If landowners like this one are deprived of the right to use their land for low density rural uses that are admittedly allowed by current zoning but are told their land will eventually be converted to urban uses, what are they to do in the meantime? Does this consign a belt of land around cities and towns to some kind of twilight zone status that makes continued investment in farming activities infeasible?

I am a strong advocate of a more managed approach to how cities grow along their boundaries and to preserving a distinctive boundary between urban and rural areas, but in this case I believe urban interests are trying to have their cake and eat it too. Perhaps this suggests we should create a new category of conservation easements – ones that sunset after 15-30 years. They could be authorized by state law and limited to belts of land around municipalities that go through a comprehensive planning process identifying areas likely to be needed for future urban growth during that 15-30 year period. Funding for the acquisition of such growth management easements could come from the municipalities and non-profits working to preserve farming activities and open space.


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