Conservation Fund is a Good Investment
Commentary by Kate Lampton,
November 18, 2010, page 2.....
Is our investment in the Town’s conservation fund a good value? Is it handled correctly? These questions were recently raised by the Charlotte Town Treasurer, and they are very valid ones. I strongly believe that conservation has had a significant and positive benefit to Charlotte and the money we have invested in conservation has been correctly spent.
The conservation fund balance is high now, but, unlike other projects, it is very difficult to “schedule” a conservation project to a particular year. Due to the ebb and flow of projects coming to completion, there are times when our fund is higher or lower. We have some significant projects moving forward right now, and the fund level will drop significantly as those projects are funded. Whether more money should be allocated in next year’s budget is a question that will be explored with the Selectboard as part of the discussion for all of the town’s budget needs.
Of deeper concern were the questions raised about who receives money from the fund and whether the town is receiving good value. Conservation is about the special features of land, not about who owns that land. No project will be undertaken by a land trust if there are not compelling attributes such as valuable agricultural soils or natural areas. This is a policy of land trusts as well as the IRS and is a requirement that must be followed to retain a land trust’s non-profit status. The 17 conservation projects that have received town conservation funds were with 15 different landowners. Clearly the funds are not being granted to only a few.
Confusion over some of the trail easements was mentioned several times in the Town Treasurer’s memo to the Selectboard and cited as evidence that the fund is not returning value to the town. Trails were not a principal focus of the fund when it was established, but as the town has begun working more on a trail plan, there has been effort made to include trail easements in conservation projects when it fits the land’s features and the landowner is willing. Provision for trails within conservation easements is a placeholder – specifying that a trail is an allowed use within a conserved area – until the Town has further developed its overall vision for a trail network and a means to construct it. As the Town’s plans evolve, so will the use of the easements.
Probably the most important question concerns the value and benefit from conservation. Charlotte has a strong agricultural economy with diversified crops and more young farmers than is usual for most towns. Our farmland is not only scenic to look at, it is working land – a fact that makes the long-term outlook for continued agricultural use more likely. Our natural areas are vibrant and essential to the overall ecological health of our town. Conservation has played a key role in this status.
Although the economic and ecological benefits of conservation are important, perhaps the short answer to a question of value is to look out of your window or drive almost any road in town. The landscape you see is not by accident. It is the result of the care our neighbors have given by choosing to preserve their land not just for a few more years, but in perpetuity. Yes, most of them have received some compensation for that choice, but have we received something too? I believe we all have. By investing in the conservation of our most important lands we are stewarding the landscape in which we have chosen to make our homes in the best possible way.