Monday, May 14, 2012
Jessica Owley (Buffalo) has posted Neoliberal Land Conservation and Social Justice, Interational Union for Conservation of Nature Academy of Environmental Law e-Journal, 2012. The abstract:
Private land conservation programs in North America tend to convey the greatest benefits to those who are already relatively well off in terms of land, wealth, and quality of life. For example, conservation easements — the fastest growing method of land protection in the United States — reward landowners with cash payments and tax breaks. At the same time, these programs tend to focus protected land in areas with low population densities. These benign sounding programs can hamper social services by reducing tax revenues and preventing the development of socially desirable amenities like affordable housing. This article describes the emergence of conservation easements as a land protection mechanism, situating it within the worldwide trend of neoliberal conservation and emergence of new environmental governance systems dominated by private actors. Specifically, this article examines the social justice concerns of conservation easements including questionable use of public funding, inequitable distribution of environmental amenities, and concerns about democracy and accountability. Rethinking conservation easement placement, use, and enforcement along with reducing or removing the tax breaks associated with them would alleviate, but not erase, some of the environmental justice concerns.
I have good reason to think that we might be hearing more from Prof. Owley soon. Stay tuned!
Wednesday, February 22, 2012
Conservation easements are an important tool in the conservationist’s toolkit—created by state legislation and supported by substantial federal and local tax benefits to encourage private lands to be used for conservation purposes in perpetuity. Nevertheless, developers have asked courts to release conservation easement based on various legal principles including that of changed circumstances. These perpetual easements have been conveyed voluntarily and the benefits of the conveyance have accrued to the donor, and any successors in interest, which include expansive federal and state tax benefits as well as potential vested zoning rights.
Developers are asking courts to ignore the independent enforceability of the contractual agreement that established these conservation easements. These easements are contractually created enforceable property rights, independent of any additional consideration. See e.g. N.J.S.A. 18:B-3. Conservation easements are supported by valid consideration, entirely separate from more traditional municipal grants of development rights. In exchange for donating the conservation easement to a municipality or charitable land trust, the landowners receive above mentioned substantial tax benefits from both the federal and state governments. A changed circumstances claim is insufficient to nullify this independently created contract obligation.
In New Jersey the legislature created the statutory backstop for conservation easements in 1979 via the Conservation Restriction and Historic Preservation Restriction Act. Prior to this legislative enactment conservation easements were of dubious enforceability given the common law’s hostility to perpetual negative easements in gross (a.k.a. conservation easements). See Restatement (Third) of Property (Servitudes) § 1.6. The New Jersey statute established a framework for enactment as well as removal of such encumberments. N.J.S.A. 13:8B-1 et seq. These removal procedures are clearly set forth in the Act; the release of a conservation easement may only be accomplished (1) under the statute; (2) with a public hearing; (3) after providing notice by publication; (4) with the Commissioner of New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s approval; (5) if it is in the public interest; and (6) recognizing the negotiated terms of the conservation easement itself.
Despite the independent enforceability of individual conservation easement contracts and various state statutory frameworks, developers are asking courts to be released from these easements—resulting in an economic windfall for the developer. These developers actively entered into, or purchased the land subject to, conservation easement and its limited provisions for extinguishment. They have also benefitted from generous local and federal tax deductions. Conservation easements—and the proper channels for their release—must be upheld as tools of conservation as intended by legislatures and traditional contract law and not used as an economic subsidy for developers when circumstances change.
Monday, February 20, 2012
If the government condemns land that is a habitat for an endangered or threatened species, should the land be valued differently than a developable piece of property in an active real estate market?
According to the Supreme Court, the default rule is that “just compensation” for condemned is the “fair market value” of the property. United States v. 50 Acres of Land, 469 U.S. 24, 25 (1984). With regard to habitat land, however, “fair market value” may be very difficult, if not impossible, to ascertain as habitat land, by definition, has been essentially taken off the market. Despite this diffuculty, there are valuation techniques available that can be used to value habitat land based on market principles. For example, as suggested by the Uniform Appraisal Standards for Federal Land Acquisitions, one could (1) determine the theoretical best economic use of the habitat land; and (2) then determine how much land used for that purpose would go on the open market.
But it is hard to see how compensation based on a hypothetical use of the land truly constitutes “just compensation.’’ The purpose of using land for habitat conservation is not to make money, but to protect endangered or threatened species. If this purpose is taken into account, then it could be argued that the only “just compensation” is to replace the habitat. Under this replacement theory, if the government takes habitat land, the government would have to provide enough money to purchase replacement habitat property. This is similar to the statutory remedy provided by CERCLA or Superfund, which allows the government to recover natural resource damages including the cost of replacement. 42 U.S.C. § 9607(f)(1) (2006).
One can certainly imagine scenarios where replacement costs of habitat land could get very expensive. For example, the government condemns habitat land located in a desolate area Mohave Desert, market value $100,000, and the only available replacement habitat land is a commercially developable parcel land located adjacent to the Las Vegas Strip that is worth $5,000,000. Would paying for the replacement land in this instance be “just compensation” or merely a windfall for the property owner? And what if there is no other adequate replacement habitat land? Would the government be prohibited from taking the property at all?
In the end, how to best value condemned habitat land will vary dependingon the facts of the situation. One would hope, however, that the government and the courts do not overlook the unique qualities of habitat land when deciding what comprises “just compensation.”
Thursday, January 26, 2012
Jessica Owley (Buffalo) has posted Exacted Conservation Easements: Emerging Concerns with Enforcement, Probate & Property, Vol. 26, No. 1, p. 51, 2012. The abstract:
Enforceability of exacted conservation easements is uncertain. Legislators, activists, and academics did not contemplate the proliferation of exacted conservation easements when enacting, advocating for, and writing about state conservation easement statutes. Despite this early oversight, exaction has become one of the most common ways that conservation easements come into being. Enforceability of exacted conservation easements is a threshold question of analysis for the continued use of the tool. Assessing the validity, and thus legal enforceability, of the exacted conservation easements involves examining the state’s conservation-easement statutes and state servitude law as well as the underlying permit scheme.
This article presents a roadmap for investigating the enforceability of exacted conservation easements and makes three suggestions for improvement. First, states should address exaction in their state conservation-easement acts. Second, drafters should increase the precision and detail of the agreements, acknowledging and explaining the nature of the exaction and the underlying permitting law. Third, to clarify the elements and uses of exacted conservation easements to both agencies and citizens, government agencies that use exacted conservation easements should promulgate regulations related to their use. Such regulations should include ensuring that permit issuers retain third-party right of enforcements. This will keep the permitting agency involved even if it is not the holder of the exacted conservation easement.
Uncertainty in enforceability of exacted conservation easements calls into question their use as a method of land conservation. Furthermore, the questionable validity of exacted conservation easements indicates that the permits relying upon such exactions could be ill advised and potentially in jeopardy.
This accessible piece builds on some of the concerns outlined in her recent Vermont Law Review piece, The Enforceability of Exacted Conservation Easements.
Monday, January 23, 2012
On Morning Edition today, NPR ran a story about farmers who sold land for development repurchasing it for agriculural use. Here's the summary:
Over the past half-century more than 20 million acres of U.S. farmland were transformed into housing developments. With new home construction all but stopped, farmers in many areas are buying or leasing land once slated for development and planting crops on it.
Wednesday, January 18, 2012
Michael Allan Wolf sends along information about the 11th Robert Nelson Symposium at the University of Florida School of Law: “Digging Up Some Dirt (Law): How Recent Developments in Real Property Law Affect Landowners and Local Governments.” From the description:
“Digging Up Some Dirt (Law): How Recent Developments in Real Property Law Affect Landowners and Local Governments” will welcome national and state experts to explore the impact on landowners and local governments of recent and proposed changes in the law of adverse possession, eminent domain, easements and mortgages.
Here is a link to the brochure. You can register at the website. Looks like a timely and interesting event with an excellent lineup of speakers, including Carol Brown (UNC), Ann Marie Cavazos (FAMU), Alex Johnson (UVA), Jessica Owley (Buffalo), and Professor Wolf (UF).
Thursday, January 12, 2012
Proving that he is, indeed, smarter than a fifth grader, comedian Jeff Foxworthy has placed a conservation easement on 1,000 acres of his farm in west Georgia. From the article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:
“As someone who grew up in Atlanta and watched it explode, I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if this could be here forever and nobody could develop it? ‘ ” said Foxworthy in a phone interview today from the property, which is based in Harris County between LaGrange and Columbus, about 100 miles south of downtown Atlanta. “It’s my escape. It’s my farm. I can drive through the gate and not have to be Jeff Foxworthy. Just Jeff.”
The land, which Foxworthy purchased in 2003, was being eyed as a possible golf course, he said. It was originally part of Cason Callaway’s 40,000-acre Blue Springs Farm, which was established as an agricultural experiment in the 1940s to promote better farm practices. The easement allows Foxworthy to maintain private property rights and the ability to live on the land. He also receives a tax break.
Foxworthy has spent most of his comedic career helping folks decide whether or not they were rednecks. It's good to see him putting his success to good use in the land conservation arena.
Jamie Baker Roskie
Monday, November 14, 2011
Daniel I. Halperin (Harvard) has posted Incentives for Conservation Easements: The Charitable Deduction or a Better Way, Law & Contemporary Problems, Vol. 74, p. 29, Fall 2011. The abstract:
Therefore, to give greater assurance that the public benefit of the gift will be consistent with the claimed deduction, the donee should be required to certify that it has selected the easement consistent with its mission and it has both the resources to manage and enforce the restriction and a commitment to do so. Moreover, it is inappropriate to measure the charitable deduction by the supposed loss in value to the donor from the imposition of the easement. The focus should be on actual benefit to charity. Therefore, eligibility for a charitable deduction for a conservation easement should be contingent on certification – by a public agency or, possibly, an IRS-accredited land trust – that the public benefit from the contribution is equivalent to the claimed deduction.
In fact, the recent changes to various tax-expenditure programs – placing caps on the expenditures and requiring the participation of expert agencies – indicates that Congress is less enamored than it once was with open-ended tax expenditures administered solely by the Treasury Department. This suggests a cap on tax credits for the contribution of conservation easements. Even if the program is open-ended, Congress should mandate participation of an expert agency such as the Bureau of Land Management, which is more capable of evaluating the public value of an easement.
Tuesday, October 4, 2011
Jessica Owley (Buffalo), one of our excellent erstwhile guest bloggers, has posted The Enforceability of Exacted Conservation Easements, forthcoming in 36 Vermont Law Review (2011). The abstract:
The use of exacted conservation easements is widespread. Yet, the study of the implications of their use has been minimal. Conservation easements are nonpossessory interests in land restricting a landowner’s ability to use her land in an otherwise permissible way, with the goal of yielding a conservation benefit. Exacted conservation easements arise in permitting contexts where, in exchange for a government benefit, landowners either create conservation easements on their own property or arrange for conservation easements on other land.
To explore the concern associated with the enforceability of exacted conservation easements in a concrete way, this article examines exacted conservation easements in California, demonstrating that despite their frequent use in the state, their enforceability is uncertain. The three California statutes governing conservation easements limit the ability to exact conservation easements. California caselaw, although thin, indicates that courts may be willing to uphold exacted conservation easements even when they conflict with the state statutes. This examination of the California situation highlights California-specific concerns while providing a framework for examining exacted conservation easements in other states.
This article illustrates not only challenges of enforceability that arise with exacted conservation easements, but uncertainty in their fundamental validity and concerns about public accountability. This exploration illustrates that enforceability is not straightforward. This raises significant concerns about using exacted conservation easements to promote conservation goals, calling into question specifically the use of conservation easements as exactions.
October 4, 2011 in Conservation Easements, Environmental Law, Environmentalism, Local Government, Property Rights, Scholarship, Servitudes, State Government, Sustainability | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Thursday, September 29, 2011
Nancy McLaughlin (Utah) has made another fine contribution to our understanding of the use of long-term land protection devices with her essay Conservation Easements and the Doctrine of Merger, 77 J. Contemp. Probs ___ (forthcoming 2011). Here's the abstract:
Conservation easements raise a number of interesting legal issues, not the least of which is whether a conservation easement is automatically extinguished pursuant to the real property law doctrine of merger if its government or nonprofit holder acquires title to the encumbered land. This article explains that merger generally should not occur in such cases because the unity of ownership that is required for the doctrine to apply typically will not be present. This article also explains that extinguishing conservation easements that continue to provide significant benefits to the public through the doctrine of merger would be contrary to the conservation and historic preservation policies that underlie the state enabling statutes and the federal and state easement purchase and tax incentive programs.
Wednesday, July 20, 2011
Jessica Owley (University at Buffalo School of Law) and Adena Rissman (Wisconsin-Madison, Dept. of Forest & Wildlife Ecology) have posted Distributed Graduate Seminars: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Studying Land Conservation, forthcoming in the Pace Environmental Law Review (PELR). The abstract:
Adapting to the many changes associated with climate change is an increasingly important issue and nowhere more so than in efforts to conserve private land. Interdisciplinary distributed graduate seminars conducted in Spring 2011 at six universities investigated whether current land conservation laws and institutions appear up to the task of protecting land in the context of change and avenues for improving the adaptive capacity of such institutions.
Distributed graduate seminars are courses coordinated among multiple universities. They begin with a core of interested faculty who organize graduate students at their universities to collect or analyze dispersed data. This article gives a brief introduction to distributed graduate seminars and then details the experience and insights gained conducting such a seminar for land conservation and climate change. The distributed graduate seminar offers advantages by allowing for the synthesis of diverse data, the integration of multiple disciplinary perspectives, and the person-power enabled by student research. For students, the distributed seminar provides opportunities to engage with a broader academic community, benefit from new perspectives, and contribute in a meaningful way to a large endeavor.
Their seminar is a great idea, and an ambitious way to take advantage of the inherent interdisciplinarity in the land use field. The paper is part of the forthcoming PELR special issue from the Practically Grounded conference on teaching land use and environmental law. More to come.
Tuesday, June 28, 2011
For those interested in conservation easements, if you haven't seen Jessica Jay's work its worth checking out. She is a practitioner who teaches Land Conservation Law at VLS during the summers and gave a great lunch lecture today on "When Perpetual is Not Forever: The Challenge of Changing Conditions, Amendment & Termination of Perpetual Conservation Easements." There is a lot of ink on this subject and she does a great job keeping up-to-date on how states and the IRS manage and might manage amendments to conservation easements. Here are a couple of her helpful outlines:
Monday, April 25, 2011
Over the last two decades, natural resource scientists, managers, and policymakers have increasingly endorsed “adaptive management” of land and natural resources. Indeed, this approach, based on adaptive implementation of resource management and pollution control laws, is now mandated in a variety of contexts at the federal and state level. Yet confusion remains over the meaning of adaptive management, and disagreement persists over its usefulness or feasibility in specific contexts.
This white paper is intended to help legislators, agency personnel, and the public better understand and use adaptive management. Adaptive management is not a panacea for the problems that plague natural resource management woes. It is appropriate in some contexts, but not in others. Drawing on key literature as well as case studies, we offer an explanation of adaptive management, including a discussion of its benefits and challenges; a roadmap for deciding whether or not to use it in a particular context; and best practices for obtaining its benefits while avoiding its potential pitfalls. Following these recommendations should simultaneously improve the ability of resource managers to achieve management goals determined by society and the ability of citizens to hold managers accountable to those goals.
The nine other scholars listed as co-authors (Andreen, Camacho, Farber, Glicksman, Goble, Karkkainen, Rohlf, Tarlock and Zellmer) make this white paper an all-star production. As an environmental 'greenhorn', I found the explanation of the concept of adaptive management straightforward and compelling. The case studies illustrate not only best practices but cautionary tales belying elevation of adaptive management as a panacea for the protection of all complex ecosystems.
Wednesday, March 2, 2011
Jerry Long (Idaho) explores the causes of and reasons for a community's commitment to sustainable land-use planning in his recently posted Private Lands, Conflict, and Institutional Evolution in the Post-Public-Lands West, 28 Pace Env. L. Rev. ___ (forthcoming 2011). Here's the abstract:
As rural communities face amenity-driven population growth and globalizing culture and economic systems, the process by which those communities imagine and implement desired futures grows increasingly complex. Globalization- and technology-facilitated and amenity-driven population growth increases the value of place-bound benefit streams – including land – promoting increased levels of physical development and a changed built environment. At the same time, globalizing culture and evolving local demographics might alter local land-use ideologies, yielding a preference for resource protection and more sustainable local land-use regimes. This article engages in a theoretical and empirical exploration that seeks to answer a single question: Why, in the face of competing land-use ideologies, might a community choose to adopt a more resource-protective, or resource-sustaining, land-use regime? Ultimately, it is only upon witnessing the actual effects of previous choices on the ground – including most significant, real harm to valued social or natural amenities – that a community is able to imagine and implement a land-use regime that can protect the amenities that community values.
March 2, 2011 in Community Design, Community Economic Development, Comprehensive Plans, Conservation Easements, Density, Development, Environmental Law, Environmentalism, Federal Government, Globalism, Land Trust, Las Vegas, Local Government, Planning, Scholarship, Smart Growth, Sprawl, Subdivision Regulations, Suburbs, Sun Belt, Sustainability, Urbanism, Water, Zoning | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Sunday, February 27, 2011
We're now entering week 4 of the spring semester at Buffalo. I'm very excited about my classes this e. Both of which are firsts for me.
I am teaching Natural Resources Law. This is a fun course and I have a great group of students. I was a bit taken aback when I learned how many of my students are from Buffalo. Place matters for many reasons, but it is especially strange feeling to teach a public lands class without one person in the room from west of the Mississippi.
I am also teaching a distributed graduate seminar called Land Conservation in a Changing Climate. "A distributed what?" you say? Yep, a distributed graduate seminar. I believe it is the first seminar of its type in the legal academy. A group of eight professors at six different schools (Buffalo, Denver, Indiana,South Carolina, Stanford, Wisconsin) are all teaching a course with roughly the same title at the same time. We have similar but not identical syllabi and take slightly different approaches to our classes. Although law students probably dominate the classes, we have opened up our classes to graduate students in other departments. All students are examining case studies, collecting data, and inputting results of interviews and research into a joint system. At the end of the semester, both the faculty and students will have access to the collected data. I am excited about this project for many reasons. First, our students are learning how to work with social scientists and understand scientific reports and papers. Second, students are actually collecting data and interviewing people who are conserving land. Third, the data collection will enable us to think both about our own states and do comparative work. Studying conservation easements is often challenged by the lack of available data. We are specifically examining how conservation easements will react (or not) to climate change. I think this project will be good for the students of course, but I also hope they learn things that will help others.
- Jessica Owley
I just returned from a stimulating one-day conference at American University's Washington College of Law called Tribes, Land, and the Environment. Organized by Ezra Rosser and Sarah Krakoff, it was a great mix of speakers on Indian law generally and environmental issues affecting/involving tribes significantly. Land use gets even more complicated when we add tribes to the mix and need to address the special issues of working with sovereign entities and federal law. I presented some of the initial findings of a larger study I am undertaking on how tribes use conservation easements. Specifically, I was examining instances where tribes hold conservation easements over land off-reservation. Much like other governments [as I have written about here], tribes use conservation easements to protect areas and ecological amenities outside their jurisdictions. I have been particularly intrigued by (1) whether tribes need to adhere to state law when entering into such agreements and (2) considering how the use of conservation easements interacts with tribes' views of property and the natural world. Intriguing stuff. If you see any examples of tribal holders in your necks of the woods, please let me know!
Many of the presentations at the conference, will appear in an edited volume of the same name.
- Jessica Owley
February 27, 2011 in Books, Conferences, Conservation Easements, Environmental Justice, Environmental Law, Federal Government, Local Government, Property, Property Rights, Property Theory, Race, Scholarship | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Tuesday, February 22, 2011
One of the many exciting things I am engaged in this month is Mercer's Environmental Law Virtual Guest Speaker Series. Students at Mercer and elsewhere listen to recorded presentations on different topics by law professors across the country. Unsurprisingly, my presentation is about conservation easements. Starting Monday February 21, my lecture was available to the students. All week students are asking me questions in an online discussion format. This is a great project by Mercer, giving students access to law professors across the country with different specialties and creating a flexible learning environment that takes advantages of new technologies. [I gave my presentation using powerpoint's new narration function which I found alternatively straightforward and infuriating.]
The discussion is a bit harder than answering questions after a talk because writing down answers in a public forum always requires a bit more thinking than the off-the-cuff answers we give when answering live questions immediately following a talk. BUT the format also lends itself to a higher caliber of questions. When students have the opportunity to think about a presentation and write questions at their leisure, the questions are intriguing and thoughtful. Almost every questions so far has pushed me more than I generally expect from students. Kudos to Mercer and Steve Johnson for this annual program.
- Jessica Owley
Sunday, February 20, 2011
February has been a busy but exciting month for me. I have agreed to a few speaking engagement and have found all of them to be worthwhile and stimulating. I spoke about my research on the Enforceability of Exacted Conservation Easements at the Albany Junior Scholar Workshop (and will be speaking on it again at the upcoming ALPS Annual Meeting). I also presented my research on Tribal Conservation Easements at the Buffalo Junior Faculty Forum (and will be speaking at it again at the upcoming Tribes, Land, and the Environment Conference at American University). I wrote earlier about how helpful I find junior faculty events and have really benefited from my colleagues at Buffalo at elsewhere who took the time to give me feedback on my work.
In the midst of these legal speaking events, I also spent a Friday afternoon presenting my research to Buffalo's Geography Department at their weekly colloquium. It's wonderful to be part of a big university where opportunities to speak and work with colleagues in other departments abound. Land Use and Environmental Law present multiple avenues for intersections and interactions. The Geography Department faculty and graduate students asked me questions that law profs never would have come up with. My TA from the Geography Department is helping me map conservation easements in a GIS database. While I appreciate the feedback from law professors, the benefits of speaking to a broader crowd are plentiful. Next stop -- Urban and Regional Planning
- Jessica Owley
Saturday, February 19, 2011
It is perhaps not surprising to many of us that landowners don't understand the encumberances on their land. If someone has never heard the term "conservation easement" before, it's not surprising that they don't understand what it means when they see it with their deed. One would hope, however, that you would find out before buying the property.
An article in yesterday's Washington Post gives examples of landowners who are uninformed about the nature of the restrictions on their land. Although the Post writer doesn't place blame, the official at the County Planning Office quoted in the article is not hesitant about pointing the finger at real estate agents.
Although this article doesn't present heartening news for the land conservation community, I was glad to see this in print. I have been hearing stories like this from landowners for a few years now (folks who just didn't realize there were encumberances on their land). While our land recording systems appear to ensure landowners will get notice of the restrictions on their land, we see that it doesn't always happen. This article highlights that such notice may not be meaningful if purchasers don't understand the deeds they are reading.
Not sure what the answer is to concerns like this. Fewer deed restrictions perhaps, but that is not very satisfying. We could require real estate agents to clearly explain all the provisions in a deed, but it doesn't look like it would have helped here. The couple that the story focuses on read and signed the conservation easement indicating that they had reviewed it. Looks like this couple may turn to the courts for relief. Hope their lawyer is better than their real estate agent.
UPDATE ON 02/21:
The Washington Post has added (or maybe it was there all along but I didn't see it) a great graphic showing where the conserevation easement was. This case has sparked an interesting debate in the land conservation community about the appropriateness of protecting backyards in this way.
- Jessica Owley
Friday, February 18, 2011
Those of us who study conservation easements don't have a wealth of case law to debate and scrutinize (query whether that is a bad or good thing). So perhaps it is understandable that we get excitable when there is even a hint of litigation. According to a local newspaper, a couple in Pennsylvania has just sued a local land trust for failing to enforce a conservation easement. In this case, the landowner allegedly violated the conservation easement by clearing woodlands, building a stable, and keeping horses. The plaintiffs claim that the land trust has not adequately enforced the conservation easement.
There are several interesting issues here including two big ones:
(1) Who has standing to bring challenges regarding enforcement of a conservation easement? Here, the plaintiffs own adjoining land. Could the township intervene?
(2) what are a land trusts' enforcement obligations? Did create of the conservation easement create a charitable trust? Can they choose not to enforce a conservation easement? How much discretion do land trusts have in negotiating settlements or conservation easement amendments?
I'm sure the land trust community will be watching this one closely.
- Jessica Owley