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
Thursday, February 17, 2011
As some of you may know, I am obsessed with intrigued by conservation easements. A strong motivator for some conservation easements (but not all or even necessarily most) is the availability of federal income tax deductions. A current bill in the senate would make such donations even more alluring.
- Jessica Owley
Tuesday, February 8, 2011
A new article in the journal Conservation Biology, highlights the need to shift our way of thinking about preservation sites. As I (and many others) have noted elsewhere, climatic changes are likely to disrupt current land protection schemes. Many of our current land conservation strategies (including establishment of reserves and most uses of conservation easements) assume environmental stability. This assumption if inappropriate when studies increasingly demonstrate there will be large shifts in ecosystems and species habitat. The authors of Toward a Management Framework for Networks of Protected Areas in the Face of Climate Change demonstrate that there is a need to increase the resilience and robustness of our conservation areas and reassess our decisions regarding where protected lands should be and what the rules governing those areas should be. Although the study examines birds in sub-Saharan Africa, the ideas and cautions easily apply to decisions regarding land conservation in the United States and elsewhere.
Below is the authors’ abstract:
Networks of sites of high importance for conservation of biological diversity are a cornerstone of current conservation strategies but are fixed in space and time. As climate change progresses, substantial shifts in species’ ranges may transform the ecological community that can be supported at a given site. Thus, some species in an existing network may not be protected in the future or may be protected only if they can move to sites that in future provide suitable conditions. We developed an approach to determine appropriate climate change adaptation strategies for individual sites within a network that was based on projections of future changes in the relative proportions of emigrants (species for which a site becomes climatically unsuitable), colonists (species for which a site becomes climatically suitable), and persistent species (species able to remain within a site despite the climatic change). Our approach also identifies key regions where additions to a network could enhance its future effectiveness. Using the sub-Saharan African Important Bird Area (IBA) network as a case study, we found that appropriate conservation strategies for individual sites varied widely across sub-Saharan Africa, and key regions where new sites could help increase network robustness varied in space and time. Although these results highlight the potential difficulties within any planning framework that seeks to address climate-change adaptation needs, they demonstrate that such planning frameworks are necessary, if current conservation strategies are to be adapted effectively, and feasible, if applied judiciously.
HOLE, D. G., HUNTLEY, B., ARINAITWE, J., BUTCHART, S. H. M., COLLINGHAM, Y. C., FISHPOOL, L. D. C., PAIN, D. J. and WILLIS, S. G. , Toward a Management Framework for Networks of Protected Areas in the Face of Climate Change. Conservation Biology, no. doi: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2010.01633.x
- Jessica Owley
Monday, January 31, 2011
Here at the Land Use Prof Blog we've been incredibly fortunate to have some really bright scholars willing to contribute--from getting Jim Kelly and Tony Arnold join the lineup, to several interesting guest bloggers, including Ken Stahl, McKay Cunningham, and most recently, Antonia Layard. It's a new month (already!) and I'm pleased to announce a new guest blogger: Jessica Owley of the University at Buffalo Law School.
Jessica teaches environmental law, property, and land conservation at Buffalo. She holds both a JD and a PhD in environmental science, policy, and management from Berkeley. Before joining the faculty at Buffalo, Jessica practiced in the land use & environmental law group at a major law firm and taught at Pace Law School. Her research interests are in land conservation, property rights, and using property tools for conservation in the context of climate change. She has posted several interesting articles in recent months on the subject of conservation easements, including forthcoming pieces in the Stanford Environmental Law Journal, an ABA book on Greening Local Government, and Law and Contemporary Problems.
We're excited to have Jessica join us this month, and we look forward to her thoughts and observations!
Tuesday, January 25, 2011
Jessica Owley (Buffalo) has posted Conservation Easements at the Climate Change Crossroads, forthcoming in Law and Contemporary Problems. The abstract:
The essence of a conservation easement as a static perpetual restriction is coming to a head with the understanding that the world is a changing place. This demonstration is nowhere more dramatic than in the context of global climate change. In response to this conflict, users of conservation easements face the decision of either (1) changing conservation easement agreements to fit the landscape or (2) changing the landscape to fit the conservation easements. Both of these options present benefits and challenges in implementation. Where conservation easement holders’ ultimate goal is to keep a maximum number of acres under protection from development, flexible conservation easements may present a viable and attractive method of protection. Where a specific conservation value or habitat is the concern, active management of the land may be more appropriate. As a further complication, both of these options are at odds with the essential nature of conservation easements. These conflicts lead to a third option: making different decisions about where and how to use conservation easements. This would likely lead to the conclusion that conservation easements are only desirable in a narrower category of purposes. This is, of course, dismaying to champions of conservation easements. Unfortunately, ensuring the long-term viability of conservation easements may entail omitting the very features that give conservation easements their strength.
This is another article from Professor Owley that challenges some prevailing views on conservation easements. On a side note, I can hint that we might be hearing more from her soon in this space!
Monday, December 20, 2010
The common law has long encouraged the use and development of land.
This policy favoring land use and development certainly made sense during America's infancy, when the country boasted seemingly inexhaustible stretches of land. But today you cannot find property that is not subject to zoning restrictions. What seemed unlimited is now increasingly scarce. Over-develpment generates multiple problems ranging from pollution to species endangerment. Forty million acres of land - larger than the state of Florida - were newly developed between 1992 and 2007.
One of the reactions to perceived over-development and receeding "wild" lands is the conservation easement, which is (generally speaking) a voluntary agreement to refrain from developing land. Much has been written about the effectiveness of this legal tool, but the arguments in this recent online publication seem disingenuous. The article characterizes the conservation easement as a clever tool wielded by a surreptitious government. The article warns private landowners to be wary of the conservation easement and the government's desire to restrict their rights.
Land trusts exist to remove private property from production.
They do this by acquiring ranch, farm, forest, or other private land either through donation, purchase, or by acquiring CEs to property as well as water. They act as unofficial arms of government agencies—third party intermediaries or ‘land agents’—and routinely flip (sell) donated as well as purchased land and CEs to these government agencies. When they do, they’re paid with tax dollars which, in turn, are used to purchase more private property.
The Conservation Easement is vulnerable to many legitimate criticisms; that it is a tool enabling a government conspiracy to rob private landowners should not be among them.
Tuesday, November 9, 2010
Jessica Owley (Buffalo) has posted another informative paper: Use of Conservation Easements by Local Governments, forthcoming in GREENING LOCAL GOVERNMENT, Patricia Salkin and Keith Hirokawa, eds., A.B.A. Publishing, 2011. The abstract:
This chapter (which will be included in the forthcoming Greening Local Government book published by ABA Publishing and edited by Patty Salkin and Keith Hirokawa) briefly introduces conservation easements, explains how local governments can use them, and discusses the appropriate role and extent of their use.
Conservation easements are nonpossessory interests in land restricting a landowner’s activities in a way that yields a conservation benefit. Local governments have been on the cutting edge of using conservation easements, engaging with them on multiple fronts. First, local governments hold conservation easements. This enables local governments to enforce individual agreements and prevent landowners from engaging in environmentally destructive practices. Second, as landowners, local governments encumber public land with conservation easements — affirming their commitments to land conservation. Finally, local governments promote conservation easements. By passing laws supporting and funding conservation easements as well as requiring exacted conservation easements for land-use permits, local governments employ mechanisms that increase the number of conservation easements in their communities.
Conservation easements can protect environmental amenities and deserve praise for their individual nature and ease of establishment. However, conservation easements are static agreements locking in today’s land use preferences and understandings of the natural environment to the potential detriment of future generations with different goals or understandings of the natural world. Furthermore, although praised as an inexpensive method for governments to obtain land conservation, funding necessary for stewardship and enforcement could be significant. As development pressures and understandings of environmental degradation increase, the use of conservation easements by local governments is likely to continue to grow. Local governments should make use of this tool cautiously.
This paper is a helpful resource for practitioners and scholars in understanding the basics of conservation easements. Along with Owley's forthcoming Stanford Environmental Law Journal piece, Changing Property in a Changing World: A Call for the End of Perpetual Conservation Easements, it cautions local government officials to be wary of the conservation easement as a panacea in pursuing environmental planning objectives.
Sunday, November 7, 2010
McKay Cunningham (Phoenix) has posted Oil and Water: Easements and the Environment. The abstract:
The age of American environmentalism has arrived. Surveys show widespread public support for preservation policies, open spaces, and natural parks, while reflecting popular disdain for new development of wild lands. Federal and state governments have reacted to public sentiment by adding acreage to national preserves, increasing the budget for agencies tasked with preservation, and by enacting and enforcing pollution laws and regulations.
Despite popular support and government-initiated efforts, forty million acres of land – larger than the state of Florida – were newly developed between 1992 and 2007. This paper addresses the historic and deeply rooted pro-development policy informing American property law. While critical in the country’s infancy, encouraging land use and development through legal constructs is less important and arguably detrimental now. Long-standing legal constructs encourage land use and as a result discourage conservation. Our need to develop wide swaths of wild land has changed; our common law has not.
One area of property law, easements, fully embraces pro-development policies. The legal principles defining express easements, implied easements by necessity, easements by implied grant, and prescriptive easements champion the development of land while disfavoring parties that allow land to remain “idle.” The pro-development policy undergirding common law property tenets lacks a conservation counterbalance. This paper details several approaches that might curb pro-development bias in easement law.
Thursday, October 28, 2010
Jessica Owley (Buffalo) has posted Changing Property in a Changing World: A Call for the End of Perpetual Conservation Easements, forthcoming in the Stanford Environmental Law Journal. The abstract:
Increasing environmental problems, including those associated with climate change, highlight the need for land conservation. Dissatisfaction with public methods of environmental protection has spurred conservationists to pursue private options. One of the most common private land conservation tools is the conservation easement. At first blush, this relatively new servitude appears to provide a creative method for achieving widespread conservation. Instead, however, conservation easements often fail to accommodate the reality of our current environmental problems. These perpetual (often private) agreements lack flexibility, making them inappropriate tools for environmental protection in the context of climate change and our evolving understanding of conservation biology.
This article addresses concerns with the widespread use of conservation easements, advocating for improved conservation easements and better decision making as to when to use conservation easements. A first step in rethinking our approach to the use of conservation easements is to shift from perpetual conservation easements to renewable term conservation easements. Although perpetuity is one of the defining aspects of most conservation easements, it is neither realistic nor desired. In their current static form, conservation easements are not receptive to change in ecology or society. Where conservation easements are of a limited duration, their economic, societal, and conservation value can be more readily assessed and considered when making land-use decisions. Additionally, many conservation easements are already beset with durability concerns. Instead of forcing a cumbersome and unrealistic perpetuity requirement on conservation easements, we should use agreements with a revisitation date. By shifting the initial assumption that these agreements will not be perpetual, we can create responsive agreements and make better decisions regarding when conservation easements are appropriate.
Tuesday, October 19, 2010
Jessica Owley Lippman (Buffalo) and David C. Levy (Morrison & Foerster) have posted Preservation as Mitigation Under CEQA: Ho Hum or Uh-Oh?, published in Environmental Law News, Vol. 14, No. 1, p. 18, 2005. The abstract:
Many local, state, and federal environmental laws contain provisions requiring mitigation of environmental harms caused by development projects. One such law is the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). CEQA requires environmental review of projects that have a significant impact on the environment and require discretionary approvals from public agencies. CEQA prohibits agencies from approving projects as proposed if there are feasible alternatives or mitigation measures available that would substantially lessen the environmental impacts of the projects.
This article reviews California cases regarding use of preservation of agricultural land as mitigation and concludes that the California courts have not yet developed a coherent position. In a few published cases, the California appellate courts appear to accept the notion that preservation can meet mitigation requirements without discussion. In some unpublished decisions where courts addressed the issue head on, they reached the opposite decisions.
There are only two acceptable techniques for mitigating environmental impacts that involve the loss, destruction, or significant alteration of unique resources such as land or habitat: creation and enhancement. However, most laws (including CEQA) define mitigation more broadly to include notions of avoidance, minimization, and preservation. Such techniques should not qualify as mitigation because these strategies should be elements of project design. When beginning a project that may have significant environmental impacts, one should seek to avoid and minimize those effects from the onset. After those steps, one would mitigate the remaining impacts through creation or enhancement. Preservation as mitigation is inappropriate because it admits that destruction of the amenity will occur. It results in an overall net loss of the amenity. It may prevent future impacts, but it does not address present problems.
Saturday, October 9, 2010
Gerald Korngold (New York Law School) has posted Globalizing Conservation Easements: Private Law Approaches for International Environmental Protection, forthcoming in the Wisconsin International Law Journal. The abstract:
For the past thirty years nonprofit organizations have revolutionized open space and habitat conservation in the United States through the use of conservation easements. Pursuant to legislation, nonprofits may now acquire and hold perpetual restrictions that prevent alteration of the subject land’s natural and ecological features. These rights can be held “in gross,” with the result that the nonprofit need not own land near the restricted property and can be based in a distant location.
Based on this success, proponents in more recent years have advocated the export of “conservation easements” from the United States to other countries. A vehicle like a conservation easement and having some or perhaps all of its attributes could be employed in other countries to achieve various local and national conservation goals. My thesis, however, is that while conservation easements could be a useful tool for preservation of land outside of the U.S., they may not be the most effective or suitable framework to advance conservation in all countries. Rather than pushing for adoption of an American style “conservation easement” elsewhere, other countries and American (and global) advocates of conservation devices should engage in a process to determine a given country’s appropriate conservation toolbox. That process should be free of American legal and conservation jargon and without a predisposition for U.S. legal structures, values, and policy choices. Each country must determine on its own whether private conservation restrictions meet its economic, social, and political realities and aspirations (many of which are quite different than the American experience reflected in American conservation easements) and what attributes the device should have on key issues such as duration, in gross enforcement, role of government, etc. These national and local goals can then be given life by finding an appropriate legal structure, ideally consistent with the country’s own jurisprudence and system.
This article will provide a framework of the major policy and legal issues that could, and in my view should, inform a country’s decision to adopt private conservation restrictions. These include considerations of cost, efficiency, preference for private vs. governmental actors, the benefits and costs of perpetual limits on land, public regulation of land as an alternative, the specter of neocolonialism in environmental controls, the nature and capacity of the country’s nonprofit sector, and the local legal system. Finally, the learning about conservation restrictions should be a two-way street, not just the export of American methods: the views of some other countries about governmental involvement in private conservation may teach valuable lessons to American jurisdictions about the need for an increased role of government and the public in certain aspects of the selection, modification, and termination of a some conservation easements.
Tuesday, September 28, 2010
Last Thursday I attended a workshop on "Farm and Estate Transition and Conservation Easements,"sponsored by the Madison-Morgan Conservancy at the Burge Plantation outside Madison, Georgia. The audience was a mix of landowners and lawyers interested in helping farm owners conserve their land and pass their farms onto future generations. This is a very interesting twist on estate planning, and I learned the value of having a qualified lawyer as an adviser on farmland transition. For example, according to Allen H. Olsen, a agriculture law specialist, traditional estate planning can sometimes create governance structures that make the farmer ineligible for farm subsidy programs, thus undermining the farm's ability to survive.
The Rolling Hills Resource Conservation and Development Council has published "Planning the Future of Your Farm: A Workbook Supporting Farm Transfer Decisions." I've only had a chance to scan through the Table of Contents, but the book seems to be chock full of tools for planning family meetings, evaluating farm resources, and drafting farm transfer tools. It looks like a great resource for anyone working with farmers interested in effectively planning for the future.
Jamie Baker Roskie
Monday, July 5, 2010
Tuesday, June 1, 2010
Hannah J. Wiseman (Texas) has posted Public Communities, Private Rules, Georgetown Law Journal, Vol. 98, No. 3 (2010). The abstract:
Thursday, April 1, 2010
Josh Eagle (South Carolina) has posted Notional Generosity, forthcoming in the Harvard Environmental Law Review (2011). The abstract:
This article explores a phenomenon that might be called “gift-form generosity”: people earning similar amounts of income are more willing to part with a dollar’s worth of one kind of property than another. Among all income groups, the form of property with which charitable donors are most willing to part is the “conservation easement.” Data show, for example, that the average charitable easement donation is more than 100 times greater in value than the total, annual charitable contribution made by the average American taxpayer. Why are donors so willing to part with conservation easements? The answer may lie in donors’ ability to engage in what I call “donative arbitrage,” that is, the opportunity to profit, in tax-benefit terms, from the difference between the donor’s subjective valuation of the property and the value a hypothetical “willing buyer” would pay for it. To the extent that this hypothesis is correct, donors may in many cases be willing to sell their easements for less than the amount they currently receive as a tax benefit. Overpaying for conservation easements reduces the amount of public money that would otherwise be available for much needed conservation on private land. Allowing deductions for easement donations also creates individual incentives that are opposite of those that would produce optimal results. Specifically, landowners who most prefer to keep their land in its current condition (and who would thus give up very little in agreeing to land-use restrictions) will be the most likely to donate conservation easements. On the other hand, because similar restrictions would be expensive to them, landowners who are most interested in developing their property will be the least likely to donate. Thus, easement subsidies are spent protecting the land that is least in need of the protection afforded by easements. The article concludes by suggesting several ways that Congress might change the law so as to improve the efficiency of conservation easement subsidies.