Council/Manager Workshop: Conservation Easements
April 9, 2006, 5 PM, Maplewood City Hall
Expeditiously Unofficial Notes by JN

A representative from the Minnesota Land Trust gave the city council and audience an introduction to conservation easements and how her organization establishes and manages them. I didn't take notes, as she seemed basically to be covering the same content that was included in the meeting's packet (PDF link) on the city website.

She did note the increasing popularity of developers working with the Land Trust to integrate conservation easements into development projects.

I did my best to record the subsequent questions of the city council, and the Land Trust's answers. (I'm sorry I didn't get the name of the representative speaking for the Land Trust, and it's not on the meeting agenda.)

Erik Hjelle: Where do you get funding?

Answer: Primarily private individuals, foundations, some corporate support. In the development setting there tends to be more of a fee for service arrangement.

Rebecca Cave: How would you do parks?

Answer: The Minnesota Land Trust actually does hold conservation easements on half a dozen to ten public parks around the state. This works best when the community has thought carefully about the future use of the land – whether or not it will have structures, trails (paved or unpaved), etc. The Land Trust wants to have these details set in the easement when it is created, and not amend it later.

Cave asked about more information on amendments to easements.

Answer: The trust really only likes to amend an easement if it is to enhance the conservation values; they do not want to go back and make restrictions in an easement more flexible.

Hjelle: Who makes the decision on an amendment? Do all the parties have to agree in the trust?

Answer: For an amendment, typically the request will come from the landowner. If it was something major it would go to the Land Trust's board for approval. Sometimes there have been technical amendments to easements (for example, correcting errors or typos in the original drafting).

Hjelle wanted follow-up to clarify that the easement could not be changed without approval of the landowner.

Answer: Yes.

Diana Longrie: What might be the role of the city's volunteer boards and commissions? She wondered if the trust helps facilitate community discussions, or if it's something the city would do.

Answer: The trust would be happy to help and would want to help facilitate, since they have experience and even a checklist of the issues that need to be considered, based on past experience.

Will Rossbach: A slide in the trust's presentation mentioned other kinds of programs. How do they differ from what trust does?

Answer: The state has some (conservation reserve program, wetland reserve program), which are typically focused on farmland. Other programs may involve easements to buffer state lands (like around state parks for wildlife). She was not sure that there are any other programs that quite fit this model.

Rossbach: There was also talk about about easements enhancing the value of surrounding property. Where can we find information or studies that show that?

Answer: A study, “Collaborative Embrace Open Space,” examined the economic value of open space; that's probably one good comprehensive look at the issue. She'll send a copy to city manager. The same group that did that study also did a follow-up work specific to Washington County, which may have relevance.

Rossbach wondered if there were other studies as well.

Answer: The trust representative said she would look up and send along specific references to other studies.

Rossbach: One aspect of conservation easements on private property is the effect on taxes. Do taxes go down because the landowners don't develop their property? How does that affect the money that might be available to a city?

Answer: This is a really current topic, as people are trying to get a handle on the tax impact. Her understanding that St Louis County is currently undertaking a study. The issue is complicated because the impact depends on each county assessor, so every county does it a little differently. She just talked with one landowner, for example, who reported that their county assessor said there would be no change in assessed value. In theory a conservation easement should lower the value of property (since one aspect of the property — development rights — is no longer part of the package available for sale), but in practice it's much more complex. For example, a property already in the agricultural classification might not drop in assessed value, as it is already very low and the easement may allow continued agricultural use.

Rossbach: How does the trust get involved in conservation design projects? (These are the projects where easements are integrated in a development on private land.)

Answer: The trust's preference is to be involved as early as possible, preferably at the concept/sketch plan stage. The design impacts their ability to assess and monitor easements, and the conservation values. For example, they might want to avoid all the back yards in a development backing up on the open space, creating potential enforcement issues (e.g., if someone builds a gazebo accidentally beyond their property line, or mows 5 feet past the edge of their actual property, into an easement where mowing is prohibited).

Rossbach: Would you want to get involved where there's a project already underway, or only when the city is looking farther in the future?

Answer: Both scenarios are of potential interest to the Land Trust. They have worked well in advance in some cases, while in others there has even been a preliminary plat in place for a development when they got involved.

Rossbach voiced a philosophical dilemma: It seems that the larger and more contiguous woodlands/wetlands/grasslands are, the higher their value to their environment. He is wrestling with Maplewood and its position in the metro area, and wonders whether we can have a bigger positive impact on the environment by bringing more development to Maplewood (and thus preserve outstate areas from it), versus the value of preserving more of this land within Maplewood in the areas that are still potentially available for development.

Answer: That's a very good question. She thinks it's important for each community to work on that. Also, on a regional level, she called attention to the importance of looking at how to piece those things together on a bigger scale, such as the metro conservation corridors, to have a more contiguous habitat across the metro area.

Rossbach: Is that something existing, or in progress?

Answer: Existing – there' s a map on the DNR's website of the metro conservation corridor.

Hjelle: When you work with a landowner, it's typically a single or a couple pieces of property. With all the scattered properties of Maplewood, would you deal with them as one entity or look at one after another and deal with each separately and uniquely?

Answer: She's been thinking about that; this is the first time a city has come with this particular request. Her thinking on this is not set, but it seems possible that some parcels could be grouped together, but there may need to be separate easement documents for many of them.

Hjelle also raised the issue of funding, and the big obligation for the trust to fund the future management of the conservation easement.

Answer: We would need to work with city on that to figure out where the long-term funding would come from. The first expenses are the immediate project costs (drafting the easement, title review, baseline documentation); then come the long-term stewardship/enforcement expenses. The Land Trust's goal is that for each easement they take, to essentially endow it so that there is enough in the pooled fund to cover the yearly operations of monitoring and managing. So for each of their easements they look for an amount, typically $7,500 to $10,000. Sometimes this endowment money comes from the landowner, sometimes grants, sometimes a public entity. So they'd look at the whole thing and then look at how the long-term obligation would be funded.

Cave: In the case of grants, who applies? City (as landowner)? The trust? What's out there for a big project?

Answer: It could work either way, or as a joint type of thing; the trust hasn't looked too much into it yet. Sometimes state funding is available in the conservation corridors. There may be other opportunities. One thing is that this is a unique and bigger-scale project, which may attract someone to invest in this as a model for other communities.

Hjelle: Obviously by being here, you guys are interested in this project?

Answer: Yes, we are interested.

Longrie finds it interesting that no other city has proposed this, talks about Maplewood's past leadership in parks and open space, and eventually comes to a question: How often are projects not approved by the trust board once they've gone through preliminaries?

Answer: Not often. Part of the staff's job is to make sure they've been thoughtful in the initial discussions so they bring a project to the board that is likely to get its approval.

Longrie: What about enforcement costs — are there some other cities that have used this on a smaller scale that we can look at?

Answer: The Land Trust has worked with a number of cities. They have some park land in Lake Elmo, and they're looking at putting one of their larger parks in the Land Trust. In Sunfish Lake, Musser Park has an easement. Some easements are found in Shorewood, some in Eden Prairie, some up in northern Minnesota as well.

Longrie: How can further questions be submitted (from citizen boards, citizens, etc.)?

Answer: It is probably most efficient to submit questions through the city manager. If there is interest, the next step would probably be to visit some of the sites and start mapping out the process.

Longrie: If the council decides to move forward, what kind of timeline would there be for this kind of a project?

Answer: Typically even individual conservation easements take 4-6 months to complete. For something like this, she ventures that something more like a year would be likely.

City Manager Copeland suggested targeting open space/neighborhood preserves first, maybe having a future phase for other parks. Also, while the Land Trust representative had told him that she was unprepared to join in the south end moratorium in its short remaining time horizon, she did express interest in helping with the open space part of the city's comprehensive plan update.

Longrie wanted to talk about the consequences to the city of private owners doing conservation easements. The city doesn't have any say on what a private landowner does?

Answer: That is correct, but typically part of project analysis is looking at local comprehensive plans. She offered the example of someone calling the Land Trust to ask about getting a conservation easement in order to stop a city from building a road across his land. Basically, that's not going to work. Importantly, she observed that even if they did create an easement, a city's proper exercise of eminent domain would take it and allow the road anyhow. But yes, it's a private party transaction.

Rossbach observed that it seemed like Copeland was moving forward as though he had already gotten a lot of specific direction from the council. Rossbach knows that the mayor has championed this idea, leading to this informational workshop, but he's not sure about these specifics like focusing on the open space. There have not been any votes on the topic in council meetings.

Copeland: It's been under discussion...

Rossbach: When?

Copeland: At the council retreat, any number of public meetings... a number of forums.

Rossbach thought the council would get this information to look at this as one possible option, not that it would look at this and do it, without looking at what other possibilities are out there.

Longrie says it will come before a future council meeting, and other options will be looked at.

The meeting was adjourned before 6 PM, at which time a closed session was scheduled to discuss one of the city's ongoing lawsuits.