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Group promotes farmland preservation

POSTED: May 17, 2009 10:36 p.m.
/Courtesy of the Athens Land Trust

The 60-acre House farm in Oconee County is one protected by a conservation easement. The Athens Land Trust works with farms like this one and hopes to establish a similar working relationship with landowners in Jackson County to protect farmland from becoming industrially developed.

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Walton County resident Dale Wiley has been in the farming business his whole life. His grandparents grew corn and cotton for years and when he took over the 168 acres of land, he decided to raise cattle.

But when it came time to decide who he wanted to give his land to and how he wanted to see it used, Wiley made a decision that will keep his farm in its rural condition.

“I didn’t marry until about three years ago and I don’t have any kids,” Wiley explained.

“I actually offered this land to my nieces and nephews. I said I would give it to them if they would keep it a farm. They wanted to keep it a farm but they wanted to sell it at some point. There’s a lot of history on the farm and I didn’t want to do that (sell it). I opted to go with a land trust so I could lock it in and so it wouldn’t be split up.”

Farmers and other land owners looking to conserve the green space they own, land trust organizations can help keep the verdant pastures from being turned into subdivisions and industrial developments.

Representatives from the Athens Land Trust, a nonprofit conservation organization, reached out to Jackson County at the commission’s May 4 meeting to offer advice about how to conserve farmland.

The land trust organization helps protect more than 814 acres in neighboring Clarke, Barrow, Walton and Oconee counties, and could work with the Jackson County government and landowners to keep the county looking green.

“Jackson County is beautiful. It has the development pressure but it’s not too late” to protect green space, said Laura Hall, the land trust’s conservation director.

“There’s enough development near Jackson County where people can see the value of not letting things just get developed in an uncontrolled way. That’s why we thought it was worth putting some energy into coming out there.”

The Athens Land Trust and other land trust organizations in Georgia work with landowners to get what’s known as a conservation easement — a document that adjoins a property owner’s deed that specifies what can and can’t be done with the property.

“If the landowner wants to donate the easement on a property, they come to us and show us maps and they tell us their goals — I want to keep farming or I don’t want any of my trees cut or whatever,” Hall explained. “There’s all kinds of different goals and (the easement) is based on how they want to live on it, what’s there and what they want to protect.”

The land trust will visit the property, take photos and talk to the landowner a little more before submitting the information to its board of directors to ensure the goals for the property line up with those of the land trust.

“The board also reviews their project to make sure we’re following IRS regulations for protecting green space,” Hall said. “Land trusts are on their own set up as an accreditation process, and we have to follow Land Trust Alliance practices and standards, too.”

One subdivision in Jackson County has already made efforts to protect the environment in its backyard. The developer of the River Mist subdivision in Jefferson worked with the Oconee River Land Trust to put an easement on part of the property, according to Jackson County Planning Manager Gina Mitsdarffer.

“It (the easement) protects the fields and the stream back there that connects to the Middle Oconee River,” she said.

The developers agreed to make the lots a little smaller in exchange for keeping the green space in the neighborhood, Mitsdarffer said.

The landowner helps the land trust pay for the legal fees in writing up the document and often works with the county, the state and the federal conservation groups, such as the Natural Resources Conservation Service, to obtain grants to pay for the development rights the landowner gives up in creating an easement.

Wiley said people considering a land trust should know that these costs, and the costs associated with land evaluations and other surveys in the process, are incurred by the landowner.

“What they need to actually understand is if you have a plot of land that you’re thinking about getting an easement on, you have a lot of expense up front,” he said.

Everyone’s situation is different, but those looking to protect land from development or keep a farm’s historic value intact, an easement is a great way to start, he said.

“If they’re looking to protect some family history, then that’s the way to go,” Wiles said.



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