Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Giving away Conservation Easements on Public Lands

There is a difficult issue being discussed by the Town Council. They are proposing to donate conservation easements on public lands in Signal Mountain to a private organization. While I absolutely support the permanent protection of our public parks, as I have fought my whole life for protection of our National Forests, National Parks and Wilderness Areas, I think that we should trust the citizens of Signal Mountain to protect their public lands rather than depending on an outside organization over which we have no control. Dr. Jeff Duncan, former Parks Board member has been a leader on this issue and has prepared the following open letter to the Council which should also be appearing in the TimesFreePress soon. It should be clear from the signers of the letter that it represents a diversity of opinions. I urge you to contact your council members at the following addresses and let them know what you think:

Bill Lusk:
Susan Robertson:
Annette Allen:
Dick Gee:
Bill Wallace:
Honna Rogers (town manager):

Open Letter to Signal Mountain Town Council Regarding Conservation Easements

March 5, 2013

On March 11, Council is scheduled to vote on donating conservation easements over Town-owned lands. Despite this, few town residents, let alone members of Council, are likely aware of the far-reaching unintended consequences of this proposed action.    With this letter, we hope to shed some light on the issue which we believe is poor governance, short-sighted, and arguably illegal.  Combined, let’s just say we have several decades of experience and education in the conservation arena professionally and through public service to our town, and we represent a very broad political and ideological spectrum.  Despite our differences, we whole-heartedly support protecting our town’s natural resources, as do most town residents.  We simply disagree with the use of conservation easements as the means of doing so for the following reasons, and we propose a viable alternative:

1.      Conservation easements are unnecessary for protecting our parklands.  Our publically-owned lands are protected by existing ordinances, and most are protected by deed restrictions.  The existing provisions can and should be strengthened, but not with the wrong tool.

2.      A conservation easement is essentially a surrendering of the development rights for a given parcel to a land trust.  Can a land trust really understand the future needs and desires of future town residents better than the future residents themselves?  If conservation easements are enacted, we will essentially be saying, “We know what’s better for future residents than do the future residents themselves.”

3.      Conservation easements are PERMANENT!  Once recorded, they can never be undone.  Period.  The Town's hands will forever be tied by law. The action will be irreversible by future councils, and the land trust will be bound to defend the easements to the fullest extent of the law, even if that means suing the Town for some inadvertent future incursion.

4.      While perhaps not yet tested in court, entering into a permanent agreement with a land trust may be illegal.  The State has laws against one council contractually binding a future council.  This action, like no other in Town history, would contractually bind all future Town Councils.  Furthermore, there may be an issue concerning surplus property regulations since this move essentially amounts to giving away property, or at least a portion thereof.

5.      Although provisions for recreational use can be written into an easement, we cannot predict the future, and exactly what provisions to incorporate would require a crystal ball. Who knows what recreation pursuits will be in 50 or 100 years? Who knows what facilities or amenities future town residents may want to consider, say, in the year 2063 or 2113?  Should it be for us to decide in 2013?

6.      Conservation easements are but one tool for protecting land, and there are many more.  Even our National Parks are protected not by easements, but by legislation. Why shouldn’t we protect our parklands the same way?

Instead of easements, we propose creating a Signal Mountain land protection ordinance that would achieve that same goal of protecting our lands but without disenfranchising future generations. An assortment of cities and towns, some much like Signal Mountain (e.g., Hamden, ME, Borough of Mountain Lakes, NJ, etc.) have adopted land protection legislation to protect their public lands.  Such an ordinance could be written to protect our lands, and still provide future citizens with flexibility. 

Although the details would need to be developed, the ordinance could include protective conditions much like a conservation easement, but without the need for enforcement by a land trust.  The ordinance could be written such that it could only be amended by majority vote of two successive Town Councils with an interceding election.  This would eliminate the idea of some future Council selling off our parklands to Holiday Inn against the wishes of the citizens. Additional deed restrictions (i.e., conservation easements granted by the Town to the Town, as opposed to an outside land trust) also represent a viable land protection alternative worthy of consideration. 

As the Native American proverb suggests, and as is even suggested in the Town’s Power Point presentation posted on the Town website, “We don’t own the lands, we only borrow them from the future.”  Let’s live up to that proverb. Let us trust our children, and our childrens’ children to do what’s right.  We ask Council to vote against conservation easements, and instead work on more appropriate means of protecting our lands for future generations through a Town land protection ordinance.  To that end, we stand united, ready, and willing to offer our assistance.


Dr. Jeffrey  R. Duncan
Doctorate in Ecology and Environmental Policy, Former Parks Board Member, Former Planning Commission Member, Professional Natural Resource Manager

Ms. Tish Gailmard
Former Parks Board Member, Professional Wildlife Curator, Life-long resident of Signal Mountain

Dr. Paul M. Hendricks, MD
Former Mayor, Former Planning Commission Member, Life-Member Sierra Club

Mr. Noah H. Long, Jr., Rear Admiral USNR (ret), Founding Member SM Tree Board, 25 years in commercial real estate.