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Residents learn how to protect their land through conservation easements

By MONICA LUNDQUIST
Cass County Correspondent

HACKENSACK -- Your primary motivation should be to preserve natural resources, not get a tax benefit, said John Sumption, Cass County Soil and Water Conservation officer and Environmental Services deputy director.

Fifty-five people with a variety of motivations came to Hackensack last week to learn about the impacts conservation easements can have on land they own or might sell or might have to appraise for taxing purposes.

There were real estate agents. There were Cass County Assessing Department employees.

Most attending, however, were Cass or Crow Wing County property owners who wanted to know more about what it could mean if they established a conservation easement on their land.

Doug Sandstrom, Minnesota DNR officer from Longville, opened the meeting, quoting from an 1897 Cass County newspaper, which described Walker as one of the most wild, picturesque and healthful places to visit. It was a full day train trip from Minneapolis and St. Paul, with a one-hour layover in Brainerd.

Walker offered "all the little bodily comforts of a city," plus peace and quiet. Sustaining the quality of natural resources continues today, Sandstrom said.

John M. Vigen, a real estate appraiser and consultant from Duluth who specializes in conservation easement appraisals, emphasized that establishing such an easement on property is "in perpetuity," meaning it is forever.

Conservation easements are recorded like other important title data on a land parcel and will be added to other legal information on an abstract, he said.

He advised seeking an attorney versed in the legalities of conservation easements, a specializing appraiser for your land, a financial planner and, especially, the opinions of your family, before making any decisions.

Recipients of an easement can vary. They may be Minnesota Land Trust, Ducks Unlimited, the county or some other conservation organization, Vigen said. A lake association can hold easements, he said.

The goal of a conservation easement is to prevent the asphalt jungle from every taking over your property, but terms of the easement can permit forest management logging or even dividing your property into "trophy sized" lots.

It all depends upon the terms you decide to write into your easement, Vigen said.

The goal of such an easement is to preserve land, basically as it is today, for public recreation or education or scenic view enjoyment and to protect the ecosystem, he said.

You need not permit public use of your land, only create a beneficial view for the public by maintaining the current natural setting for view from across a lake or from a neighboring road, he said.

Your land must be monitored annually by the agency or organization to which you assign the easement to ensure that you continue to comply with the terms you established in your easement, Vigen said.

It needs to create a significant public benefit and be unique to the area, he added. It can also complement an adjacent public land asset, such as county, state or federal forest land.

Internal Revenue Department guidelines and property tax assessments of the value of land with and without an easement are used to determine whether you may receive an income or property tax benefit from establishing an easement, Vigen said.

Development value will be compared with conservation easement value. Restrictive value will be compared with conservation easement value for property tax impact, if any, he said. Market value before and after a potential easement will be compared.

For IRS purposes, after a baseline study is done to determine the natural resource value of property, Vigen said up to 30 percent of adjusted gross income can be taken over six years as a charitable donation in conservation easements.

If the value exceeds this, easements or donations can be staged to keep the donation within a beneficial amount in six-year segments, Vigen said.

Beth Davies represented the Minnesota Land Trust. She has set aside 80 acres of her central Cass County Horseshoe Lake property in a conservation easement

While land trusts have been growing nationwide, the one in Minnesota began as recently as 1991 by property owners along the St. Croix River. Today, the organization manages 190 land trusts, with 40 of those on lakes, she said.

Minnesota Land Trust asks for a donation to its endowment fund when land goes into trust, she said, to enable the organization to maintain its monitoring program. This may run as high as $15,000, she said.

Her own conservation easement specifies no new construction or subdivision, but permits hiking and cross country ski trails to cross it, she said.

She acknowledged having a conservation easement on property likely will limit its marketability.

Ted Mellby of Hackensack represented Leech Lake Watershed Foundation. He said that organization has been competing with developers to try to buy land to preserve it. It has been successful in about 16 projects, but failed in others, he said.

He personally has given conservation easements on three southern Minnesota farmland parcels, he said. The private sector is light years ahead of the public sector in purchasing land to conserve it, in Mellby's view.

He emphasized the importance of conserving existing resources rather than having to take remedial action like is being done on the Minnesota River after damage was done.

"I'm glad to see all these people with a passion for protecting our natural resources," he told the audience.

He noted the importance for property owners of maintaining easement terms. If you do not, he said, expect to be taken to court. Inspectors who check annually for compliance may be government officials or trained volunteers, depending up the agency or organization to which you give the easement, he said.

Inspection fees are tax deductible, he added.

Most of the prime lakeshore has been sold for development in this area, Mellby said, making remaining shoreline more appropriately preserved in its natural state.

John Steward, Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, explained the state's Reinvest in Minnesota program.

Conservation easements were provided for 70,000 acres, mostly in southwestern Minnesota for agricultural land, he said. This included $130,000 worth of easements along the Minnesota River.

He noted the upper Mississippi River is the only river not bordering a neighboring state. One million people drink water from the Mississippi. It should be a prime target for creating conservation easements, Steward said.

Conservation easements leverage other funds, he said. They are permanent, tangible, flexible and focused on conserving resources. The money from them goes into citizens' pockets, he added.

The state of Minnesota began its first conservation easement program in 1998 by legislative action, Sumption said. Only $250,000 was funded for this state program since 1998.

That whole amount went into a conservation easement for Rochester, YMCA's Camp Olson on Little Boy Lake near Longville, he said.

The camp acreage will be protected from building and subdivision or development in the future, but will continue to operate as a camp, Sumption said. It contains a predominance of natural vegetation, which is being maintained.

Livestock grazing will be restricted on the property. It must be kept free of noxious weeds, he said. It contains marshes and wetlands, an osprey nest, a bear den and several rare and endangered plants, Sumption said.

If the Legislature funds future projects under this program, Sumption said they must be on a DNR protected lake. The legislature has not provided additional funding for this program since Camp Olson received funding, he said.