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Forget state parks: locals buy easement rights to fend off development

$11.5 Million Big Sur View May Be a Bargain

For Sale: Five miles of gorgeous coastline in California's Big Sur, untouched except by grazing cattle.

From that description, the $11.5 million that Monterey County agreed to pay last week to rancher Jim Hill would seem like a bargain. But in the view of some residents, it was Mr. Hill who got away with a steal.

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That's because, under the terms of the deal, Hill remains the owner of the land. What the public bought was the view, preserved forever through a conservation easement, a legal agreement that prevents the rancher or his descendants from ever developing the property.

"To me, spending $11.5 million to protect that beautiful coastline was a good expenditure of the taxpayers' money," says county supervisor Sam Karras about the largest easement deal in state history.

Mr. Karras has lots of company. Pioneered by private land trusts as a conservation tool, easements are now increasingly favored by public agencies, at a local, state, and federal level. "You don't always have to own land to protect it," says Jean Hocker, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Land Trust Alliance, an environmental group.

At a time when public funds to acquire land are at a premium, easements offer a cost-effective use of conservation dollars, proponents argue. Easements usually cost less than buying the land outright, the public is saved the cost of managing the land, and the land remains on the tax rolls, often with ongoing use for ranching, farming, or other productive activity.

Easements have also been popular with conservatives who see them as an alternative to more government ownership of land and a way of preserving property rights.

No panacea

Some conservationists contend that the bargain is not all it seems. There are often indirect costs to easements, such as the resources needed to monitor the agreement and the lawsuits that sometimes arise over disputes. The agreements do not allow public access to the lands, despite the use of public money. At the same time, landowners not only keep their property but garner often lucrative tax advantages from the easement. "We do it," says Martin Rosen, president of the Trust for Public Land, one of the nation's largest private land managers, "but it's not one of the vehicles that we regard as a great panacea for the open space problem."

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What is indisputable is the growing use of easements. According to a 1994 survey, about 737,000 acres of land were protected by easements, a 64 percent increase from 1990. The Nature Conservancy, the country's largest land conservation organization, has put 628,000 acres under easement.

Conservation easements are legal documents in which a landowner voluntarily places restrictions on the use of his property by present and future owners. Typically the owner might be allowed to continue to graze cattle or build a house but cannot harm natural features of the land that are considered necessary to protect the plants and animals found there. A private conservation group or a government agency ensures the terms are kept.

Some federal agencies have used easements for specific purposes. The Park Service bought easements to preserve vistas along federal highways. And the Fish and Wildlife Service has made agreements with farmers in the prairie states to restrict the drainage and filling in of wetlands used by migratory waterfowl.

But historically, government agencies have been "very reluctant" to use easements, says Mike Dennis, general counsel for the Nature Conservancy. The agencies prefer to buy land outright.

That has begun to change in the last few years as the amount of money allocated for land purchases has dropped dramatically due to budget cuts. In Florida, for example, the state Legislature in its last session required the department of environmental protection to buy at least two easements over the next year to get the ball rolling.

Big Sur, big deal

The Big Sur purchase is by far the largest such purchase of its kind in the Golden State. The money for it came from a parks bond act passed in 1988 providing $776 million to buy new state and county parks. The measure included $25 million to preserve the cliff-lined Big Sur coast.

Out of the 25 acquisitions made with the money, only three were easements, all bought last year. But of the 4,200 acres protected by the program, about 3,600 acres are covered by the easements, most of that in the El Sur Ranch deal. Ranch owner Hill was not prepared, in any case, to sell the land, county officials say.

For landowners, easements have obvious attractions. If the easement is donated, the value of the development rights is tax deductible as a charitable contribution. The property's value on the tax rolls is also permanently reduced, often sharply cutting property and estate taxes.

Some owners are motivated by more than financial benefits. Jim Sindelar's Montana ranch along the Yellowstone River has been in his family for three generations since it was homesteaded by his grandfather in 1881. But none of his three daughters is interested in continuing the family business, while development is closing in from nearby Billings.

So the Montana rancher donated an easement to the Montana Nature Conservancy protecting 328 acres of his ranch, including rich habitat for cranes, owls, and bald eagles in the cottonwood forest along the river. "I see so much land around here covered with asphalt and concrete," says Mr. Sindelar. "I don't want to see that here."

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