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VOL. 36 | NO. 36 | Friday, September 7, 2012

Saving family land for future generations

Land Trust helps landowners keep, preserve property

By Hollie Deese

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If a person’s home is his castle, then the land it occupies on is most certainly his kingdom.

And large or small, that piece of land means something to the owner.

Vickie Pierce has turned her mother’s 30-acre kingdom, Shawnee Waters on Old Hickory Lake, into an arboretum with nearly 150 species of trees. Matthew Neal recently dug trenches on his family property that will provide water to the house he is building nearby. And despite being in her 90s, you can still catch Elizabeth Crunk working her land in rural Williamson County atop her big tractor.

All of these hardworking homeowners have invested more than simply money in their family land. And as diverse as their properties are, they are all connected on one way: All of them have gotten a conservation easement through the Land Trust for Tennessee.

“Basically, land owners sign over the development rights of their property in exchange for tax benefits,” says Caitlin Mello, communications and executive coordinator for The Land Trust.

A conservation easement is a voluntary contract between the landowner and a land trust in which the owner places permanent restrictions on the future uses of some or all of the property to protect scenic, wildlife or agricultural resources, according to the Land Trust of Tennessee.

The restrictions vary widely depending on the agreement made between the landowner and trust, but usually will limit or eliminate future development of the land. The easement is donated by the owner to the land trust, which then has the authority and obligation to enforce the terms of the easement “in perpetuity.”

So despite some misconceptions that the landowner is donating the property, they actually still own it. They can then sell it, donate it or leave it to relatives, but the restrictions of the easement they help establish will always be with the land.

“We are not paying for land,” Mello adds. “We are not buying the land to protect it. We are working with landowners and sometimes we do partnerships to buy the land if there is no other option.”


So why would anyone want to sign over the development rights to land they plan on having in their family forever? The easement, in addition to permanently protecting the land while the owner remains, also creates certain tax advantages.

For example, it could reduce or stabilize property taxes. And while that means it can reduce the value of the land upon which estate taxes are calculated, this benefit can often mean the difference between heirs having to sell or develop the property to pay estate taxes or being able to keep the property in the family.

“Most of the time families want to get a conservation easement because the land has been in their family for years and years – decades,” Mello says.

The possibility of younger generations losing family land is one of the reasons that prompted Vicki Pierce to seek an easement from the Land Trust. Her mother’s 33 acres are 100 percent surrounded by subdivisions, so she knew the desire for them to expand was great.

“I knew that the land was so valuable that perhaps even my daughter would not be able to afford to inherit it,” she says. “They give you some tax advantages that will keep your taxes low. You take a big hit on the value of your land, but if the whole idea is to preserve the land, you just take the hit and go on with it. You can’t have it both ways.”

Once Pierce knew the land would always be immune from development, she began to turn the property into an arboretum, growing the number of tree species from 90 to 160, including six of the seven most endangered species in the southeast.

“I would like to say it is benefitting everyone who drives by,” she says. “We all deeply love this land, and it seemed like the best thing to do was put a conservation easement on the land. That way our heirs in the future can afford to inherit it. Or if they choose to sell it they can still sell it. The idea is that whoever purchases it or whoever owns it cannot subdivide it.”

Pierce and her family are one of six Tennessee families featured in a new book out in October, Home To Us: Six Stories of Saving the Land published by the Land Trust.

Nashville author Varina Willse says she found that the biggest reason the people decided to protect their land was simple: There is nothing more valuable to them that they could leave as a legacy.

“There are hundreds of families who have made this decision, and the six people we chose, we really wanted to show the diversity of people who make this kind of decision and the different passions of the land that are manifested there,” Willse says.

“The more I worked on it, the more I realized what we were doing was exploring the relationship between a person and land, and why it was so valuable to them that they would forgo any amount of money that might come about in the future to preserve that land. How do you get to that point where it is more important than anything else in a society where, more and more, people are moored from land in general.”

In December 2011, Roderick and Kay Heller placed a conservation easement on their 40-acre property, Windermere in Williamson County, which is adjacent to the historic Carnton Plantation and the Eastern Flank Battlefield in Franklin. The Battle of Franklin was fought there during the Civil War, and it is now preserved forever under a conservation agreement held by The Land Trust. The home on the property belonged to Carrie McGavock, who owned Carnton Plantation during the Civil War.

It is an important part of the agricultural heritage and civil historic heritage of Williamson County,” Mello says of the property. “Williamson County and Leiper’s Fork are some of our most passionate land owners and environmentalists. They are so passionate about their neighborhood and their area.”

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