Preserving What’s Special: The Wallkill Valley Land Trust
By Laura Wong Pan
From Issue 32: Fall 2016
It is easy to take our scenery for granted while speeding along Albany Post Road on the way to work. But I am continuously reminded why I moved here fifteen years ago, especially when we have out-of-town visitors who are charmed by our small town as we take them on a “grand tour.” They remind me about the abundance of apple and beef farms, the undeveloped land on main roads, and the inviting views from almost all of Gardiner of the Shawangunk Ridge with its thousands of surrounding acres of private and publicly-owned parkland.
This article, however, is not about the pretty views or my out-of-town guests. It is about the Wallkill Valley Land Trust (WVLT) and its role in preserving those scenic views and important areas through active land preservation efforts in our community.
As many readers may know, the WVLT, a nonprofit organization, funded almost entirely by donations, acquires and manages voluntary conservation agreements with owners of environmentally significant parcels in southern Ulster County.
The organization holds easements on 11 properties in Gardiner, protecting over 630 acres of land from future development. This means that, at some point in time, landowners of those properties have voluntary agreed to enter into a conservation easement, which extinguishes the possibility of future development on these lands. In Gardiner, lands that are protected from development include both private residential parcels and farmland practicing community supported agriculture.
So, what is a conservation easement? Like a Deed, it is a legally-enforceable document with restrictions that last in perpetuity. As Executive Director Christie DeBoer frequently says, “in perpetuity is a very long time.” It means that future landowners are bound by the terms described in the conservation easement, which is filed along with the deeds and mortgages with the Ulster County clerk. Typically, conservation easements will first identify the important environmental attributes that make the property worth protecting. These are also called values, and may be things like an uncontaminated aquifer or other water source; prime soils unique to the area that supports agricultural production; old growth trees; or a view shed important to the community.
Once the parties have identified the important environmental attributes of the property, the easement will describe the restrictions that are put into place to protect and preserve those environmental values. Common restrictions in conservation easements for residential properties include prohibiting additional residential structures, or limiting the size of structures, while easements for agricultural land will allow for farm-related structures, but sometimes limit, say, farm worker housing units. There are typically restrictions on new roads and other impervious surfaces. Deforestation projects or large clearing measures are usually prohibited by stating a limited right to cull trees in accordance with a forest management plan.
Because conservations easements run with the land, new landowners inherit the easements and may be unfamiliar with the terms. Organizations like the WVLT are responsible for monitoring and enforcing the easements, in perpetuity. The Land Steward visits every property at least once a year, examining the condition of the land, documenting changes or alterations, and educating new owners regarding the content of the easements. Any issues found are brought back to the WVLT to be examined. If it is decided there is a violation of the terms in the easement, additional measures are taken to address the violation.
So what’s in it for the landowners? New York offers a Conservation Easement Tax Credit, which allows taxpayers to take a refundable income tax credit of 25% of their school district, county, and town property taxes. The maximum credit available is $5,000, and if the landowner’s tax credit exceeds the amount he or she owes in state income taxes, the landowner receives payment for the difference.
The donation of a conservation easement is also a tax-deductible charitable gift under the Internal Revenue Code, provided that the easement is not temporary but is intended to last in perpetuity and is donated “exclusively for conservation purposes” to a qualified conservation organization or public agency. While the tax breaks are a plus, most often the Land Trust hears from land owners that the driving factor in the decision to place an easement on their land was the knowledge that the land would be protected in perpetuity.
In Gardiner, agricultural conservation easements held by the WVLT include Phillies Bridge Farm, home to a very well-know CSA which was the first one in Ulster County. The easement was donated by the Ottaway Family in 2003 to protect valuable soils, wetlands, woods, and the rural character of Gardiner. Conservation easements are also held over the Hess Farm on Sand Hill Road, and the Kiernan Farm on Brunswick Road.
Residential examples in Gardiner are many. The 1992 easement from Anne and Bill Finn on eight and a half acres of fields and habitat runs along the Shawangunk Kill. The Greene easement., one of the earliest, was donated to the WVLT in 1989 by Trina Greene. It is a seven acre parcel along the Wallkill River providing lovely views and protecting both habitat and water quality.
The Katz–Hollander Easement on Brunswick Road was donated by Joe Katz and Sue Hollander in 1995 and preserves 65 acres of fields and woods, while the Osborne North easement, near Albany Post Road, was donated by Vals Osborne, a Land Trust Board member, in 2004. It protects 69 acres of working farmland and woods with much frontage along the Wallkill River.
Finally, the 43 acres of the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail that fall in Gardiner are also protected with a conservation easement held by the WVLT. Thousands of people enjoy this recreational linear park, which is now a little over 22 miles long.
The Land Trust’s operations are overseen by a volunteer Board of Trustees and managed by Executive Director Christie DeBoer, Deputy Executive Director Melissa Brunette and part-time Land Steward Lynn Bowdery. They are aided by a handful of dedicated volunteers.
So, next time you take out of town visitors on a tour of the highlights, remember the 630 acres of environmentally significant lands that have been preserved for future generations by this partnership of the WVLT, private landowners, the Open Space Institute and the Town of Gardiner.