Tuesday, July 23, 2013

HCN Article About Jackson, Wyoming Highlights Concerns with Conservation Easements

I am not sure how many of you are readers of High Country News, but it is of course the go to source for news about the West (especially if you are interested in land use, conservation, or rural peoples). I get it in hard copy because even though you can get it electronically, it is hard to beat seeing their large format magazine with awesome images. An article by Ray Ring from the June 10th issue caught my eye and I thought might be interesting to some of you.

In Paradise at a Price, Ring examines how conservation goals collide with affordable housing. He uses Jackson, Wyoming to tell his tale but it is a story we have seen in many towns. Jackson has some special challenges because of its high percentage of publicly owned land, but we see similar patterns in several resort communities. The story is a simple one. Beautiful areas attract people. Beautiful areas with recreation opportunities in particular end up with communties dominated by fancy vacation homes and amenities for tourists. Real estate prices are high. But all those tourists and Californians with second homes still need goods and services. The problem is that employees of the stores, the ski resorts, the hotels, and the grocery stores can't afford to live in Jackson. This means we need afforable housing projects. Unfortunately, in areas like Jackson the affordable housing projects compete not only with other private residential development but also with conservation efforts.

This article was not about conservation easements, but its description of conservation easements in Jackson illuminated two somewhat conflicting concerns with conservation easements. I'll give you the facts and then explain my concerns.

  • More than 97% of Teton County's land is public (owned by federal, state, or local government)
  • This leaves only 78,000 acres of private land for development
  • Much of this private land is covered by vacation homes for the wealthy
  • 1964 local planning laws established overlay districts, protecting wildlife habitat and scenic views. This restricts development on 48,000 acres (leaving only 30,000 unrestricted acres).
  • Conservation easements prevent development on 22,000 acres. Most (but not all) of the conservation easements are within the overlay districts
  • 20,000 acres are too steep to build on (I think this may leave 10,000 unrestricted developable acres but I am not exactly sure what category these 20,000 acres fall into)
  • Restrictions throughout the county limit things like building height (usually nothing over 2 stores) and include specific rules limiting construction near things like spawning areas and swan nests

Okay, so now my concerns. Note, there are many concerns here about affordable housing which are obviously just from looking at the facts above and are well explained in Ring's article, so let me just look to the conservation easement issue.

  1. Conservation easements are part of the problem on the affordable housing front. The restrictions on development puts up obstacles for people trying to build needed housing. Depending on your goals, you may be okay with that outcome but most of these conservation easements are ways for wealthy people to protect their views and open space (often with receiving attractive tax breaks). I know protecting these beautiful areas is important, but when we let private individuals make all the decisions about what to protect ... it makes me nervous.
  2. Conservation easements may not get you a lot of bang for your buck. The article states that most of the conservation easements in the community are in areas already protected by overlay districts. This makes me really curious about what type of compensation or development permit the landowners got in exchange for the conservation easements. What are they worth if land use was restricted without them. Admittedly, the conservation easements may have additional restrictions and will remain even if the County changes the contours and rules for the overlay districts. I don't have information about these individual conservation easements, and I am sure the Jackson Hole Land Trust would be pissed at perturbed by my claims but I have seen several examples from conservation easements I have dealt with directly where the landowner receives a large benefit for agreeing not to do something she never intended to do.

Just some food for thought

Jessie Owley

 

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Affordable Housing, Conservation Easements, Development, Environmental Justice, Housing | Permalink

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