Easements preserve natural and community resource

If you blink, you’ll miss 230 Boulevard. You’ll miss the bags of soil and the saplings waiting in blue recycling bins. The mayor and commission approved plans in February to turn the tiny lot into Boulevard Woods, a community park.

Land is very expensive in the historic neighborhood, but owner Gary Bayard chose not to clear it and sell to a developer; instead he placed it in a conservation easement, a privately owned property that can’t be mined, timber farmed, or developed, per the owner’s request.

Boulevard is only one lot out of more than 800 acres in Athens-Clarke County designated as conservation easements.

Landowners can receive federal income tax deductions and state tax credits for registering land with an approved conservation organization like Athens Land Trust or Georgia Conservancy.

But to the average Athens-Clarke County resident, what difference does a conservation area make? Most of the county’s 120,000 residents rent, not own, property.

The answer: land conservation protects biodiversity and ecosystem services such as clean air and water. Athens area conservation protects the water supply in particular.

Many easements border the middle Oconee River or its tributaries. Athens Land Trust protects more than 600 acres along the Oconee in multiple counties.

People care about water, said Dr. Liz Kramer of the Natural Resources Spatial Analysis Lab. “When we start seeing a stress on a resource, it’s going to impact us.”

Georgia’s land and water are stressed more than ever, Kramer said. “Georgia changes a lot because we have a lot of development,” she said.

Permanent easements insure some of Georgia’s resources are maintained.

Because more than 95-percent of Georgia land is privately owned, these easements are the most effective tool for conservation, according Clint McNeal, Georgia Land Conservancy conservation specialist. Landowners retain the rights to sell and bequeath the land, local governments receive property taxes, and registered conservation trusts care for the land and its resources in perpetuity.

The State Assembly introduced the tax incentive program in 1993 to encourage more land owners to protect forests, wetlands, and greenspaces from destruction.

The state offers transferable tax credits for 25-percent of the land’s resale value minus the development or timber value prohibited by the easement, up to $250,000.

The credit especially helps “land-rich, cash-poor” individuals who can sell the credit for about 80 cents on the dollar, said McNeal, although as few as eight easements in the state qualified for credits last year.

Limited liability corporations also contributed to the increase in number of easements in the last two to three years, said Athens Land Trust Conservation Director Kyle Williams.

Although people tend to think of conservation areas as large tracks of land like Bear Creek Reservoir, the average size of an easement in Athens-Clarke County is 67 acres, that’s about two city blocks.

In the Boulevard neighborhood, less than half an acre makes a difference. Boulevard Woods will provide a greenspace in Athens’ urban center, a unique role in the growing city.

Boulevard is an affluent pocket in a mixed student, townie, and low-income area. Williams says the conservation easement is a really a community easement.

“Recognizing a tree is valuable, or a flower, gives them a greater sense of stewardship of resources.”

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