(Credit: Town of Lyme)

Lyme Provides Model Amid State Struggle to Manage Conservation Easements

IN THE REGION — The Lyme Land Conservation Trust (LLCT) holds 69 conservation easements. At least once each year, one of 42 volunteer stewards inspects every property, and documents any changes with photographs and in writing, said Sue Cope, LLCT’s environmental director.

The Town of Lyme has not previously conducted yearly inspections, but this year the town will be monitoring all ten of its conservation easements, and will add them to a publicly-available town GIS map, said Wendolyn Hill, open space coordinator for Lyme.

In the state of Connecticut, this level of management is uncommon.

“I know that our level of recordkeeping and stewardship is above and beyond what many other local conservation organizations have the capability to do,” Cope said. “Towns like Old Lyme are struggling to even find a way to begin moving down the road of monitoring their easements, and I feel for them.”

About 104,000 acres of land in Connecticut are protected by conservation easements, yet only 23 percent of those easements are documented in the National Conservation Easement Database

For many of the 169 municipalities in the state, even keeping track of the location of protected land has been a challenge.

“It’s a little frustrating across the whole state. Where is our open space? And what do you mean by open space?” said Margot Burns, the Environmental Planner for the Lower Connecticut River Valley Council of Government. “Legislatively they want to protect 22 percent of our land as open space, but we don’t know where it is. It doesn’t make sense. It all comes down to having a cohesive land record system, which we don’t have.”  

About 104,000 acres of land in Connecticut are protected by conservation easements, yet only 23 percent of those easements are documented in the National Conservation Easement Database.

The situation is significantly better for privately-held easements in Connecticut. 73 percent of these easements are documented in the national database.

Long-delayed database nearly complete

In 2014, the Connecticut General Assembly passed Public Act 14-169, which mandated that the state create a database of land conserved for the benefit and use of the public, including holdings of municipalities and land conservation organizations, state-owned land, the state-owned water supply, as well as easements held by state agencies, including the Connecticut Department of Energy & Environmental Protection (DEEP).

Four and a half years later, DEEP has almost completed a first draft of a publicly-accessible database. Graham Stevens, DEEP’s director of energy and environmental protection, said that the hope is that the project will be finished by the end of 2019.

“We are working in partnership with Eastern Connecticut State University to create a GIS registry of all of these conservation easements,” Stevens said. “We’ve been working on it for some time and hoping to roll it out by the end of 2019 with some 80,000 acres identified.”

Approximately 35,000 acres of these lands are conservation easements.

“The delay with respect to building this system is due to the fact that we didn’t have funding or staffing to complete this work,” Stevens said. “So, we entered into partnership with Eastern and received a small federal grant that has allowed us to start the work.”

When completed, Connecticut will join nine other states that have documented more than 96 percent of their publicly-held conservation easements. Montana and Colorado require all easement-holders to file information about all easements with the state.

Lack of funding hampers efforts

The National Conservation Easement Database — an initiative of the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities managed by Ducks Unlimited and the Trust for Public Land has also been hampered by a lack of funding.

The database project, which began in 2010 with a $1 million grant, received just $50,000 this year — funding that was provided as part of the United States Geological Survey Protected Area Database program.

“This is the trap that a lot of people get into. Yes, easements are great, but you don’t think about how much time or money they take” — Robb MacLeod, Duck Unlimited

Funding is also a serious concern on the municipal level, where town officials commonly complain that they lack the resources to manage easements that date back decades.

“It’s not bad when you have two or three or ten easements and they are close together, so monitoring just takes a day,” said Robb MacLeod, the national GIS coordinator for Ducks Unlimited. The problem is when the monitoring takes weeks and there were no resources set aside for it. “This is the trap that a lot of people get into. Yes, easements are great, but you don’t think about how much time or money they take.”

It’s the reason why Ducks Unlimited – and many land trusts across the state of Connecticut — now establish an endowment each time a new easement is acquired.

“The state is strapped. There are so few resources now to get these types of jobs done,” said Amy Paterson, the executive director of the Connecticut Land Conservation Council. “There is an annual grant round of funding through bonding and the community for acquisition of fee properties and easements, but there isn’t a grant fund for stewardship.”

Convincing municipalities and non-profits to go through the effort without any funding available can be near impossible. In other states, the passion and dedication of volunteer individuals has allowed for documentation and mapping projects to be completed.

“We worked with someone in Illinois to bring complete coverage to the state. A man went to every town hall and looked up all the easements himself. It took him a couple years,” MacLeod said.

The Open Space Commission in Old Lyme is anticipating it will take between three and five years to sort out 43 easements alone, according to Amanda Blair, chair of the commission.

By the early 2000s, the disorganization, the lack of funding and monitoring of easements became apparent in projects like Margot Burns’ work for RiverCOG to identify conservation easements in the eight towns comprising the Connecticut River Gateway Commission.

“The purpose was to find out what we had and engage the communities in the issue,” Burns said. “We didn’t know where they all were and they weren’t being stewarded like they should be.”

In the case of Lyme, her efforts encouraged towns like Lyme to take better care of the easements they held. Lyme soon after hired an open space coordinator and the LLCT eventually began yearly inspections of all open space.

Progress through partnership

The combined efforts of town government and LLCT have allowed Lyme to accomplish more than most towns in southeastern Connecticut.

“When you look at the big picture, it’s an overwhelming task to take on. Our 69 easements cover over 2000 acres across our town and it’s a major undertaking,” Cope said.  “But I do not do it alone.”

LLCT relies on more than 40 volunteers from the town to assist in annual survey.

“We also work closely with the Town of Lyme and share resources related to deeds, easements, and surveys. As the environmental director in charge of stewardship of these parcels, it has become essential to my job to develop and maintain a good rapport with our selectmen, ZEO [zoning enforcement officer], town clerk, and other like-minded citizens and town workers,” Cope said.

Cope and Hill stressed that the most important part of proper management is maintaining good relationships with landowners.

“I think, above all other things, we need to make sure that our landowners are aware of what their conservation easement means for them, and it is our duty as a land trust and the managers of their easement to help them interpret their easement wording in order to empower them to continue to protect their own land,” Cope said. “If we were to come across a violation the most successful approach I have found is to meet with them in person at their earliest convenience, and give everyone the benefit of the doubt.”

“I actually find pleasure in taking on possible violations that are reported to us because it’s an incredible opportunity to spin something that could have been negative into a very positive situation for the town, the land trust and the landowner” — Sue Cope, Lyme Land Conservation Trust’s environmental director.

Cope said LLCT uncovers encroachments and possible violations every year that can easily be resolved when politely addressed.

“99 times out of 100 a followup conversation with a landowner or neighbor quickly resolves the issue, and most scenarios are uncovered as misunderstandings or misinterpretations of the easement or property boundary,” Cope said. “I actually find pleasure in taking on possible violations that are reported to us because it’s an incredible opportunity to spin something that could have been negative into a very positive situation for the town, the land trust and the landowner.”

“When it comes to managing conservation easements we almost operate as a branch of the Town of Lyme. This job would be infinitely more challenging without their support,” Cope said. “Frequently the Town of Lyme’s preserves and the land trust preserves are confused as being one in the same and that’s not a bad thing!”

In order for the conserved land in the state to stay protected, the Connecticut Land Conservation Council encourages more partnerships like the one in Lyme.

“We encourage land trusts to partner as much as they can with their town, whether that means sitting on a conservation commission or offering resources,” Paterson said. “Often times the land trust is now collaborating with the town in order to monitor all conservation easements,”

Rebuilding trust

For decades the state has been less inclined than towns or land trusts to accept conservation easements because of a desire to directly manage the land, Stevens said. But, in recent years towns and land trusts have also seen a decline in the sale of conservation easements.

“Generally speaking we are seeing less easements and more purchases of open space,” Paterson said.

In 2017, UConn professors in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology published a peer-reviewed study on behaviors that can determine the willingness of a landowner to place a conservation easement on a property.  

“The biggest way that you can convince people to put an easement on the property is if you trust the holder,” said Chris Elphick, a biology professor at UConn and one of the investigators on the study. “The landowner needs to be able to have trust that they will be treated fairly.”

Latest from Julia Werth