From Estes Valley Land Trust Board of Directors
The concept of a “conservation easement” is in the news as Estes Park citizens discuss the various merits of preserving open space through this legal agreement which is both voluntary and permanent. What a conservation easement is, how it is accomplished, and what its long-term obligations are should be part of this conversation.
EVLT is a nationally accredited land trust (one of a prestigious first group of 39 out of over 1,500 to be awarded this designation in 2008) that administers the stewardship responsibilities of 159 conservation easements (9,600 acres) in the Estes Valley. EVLT is not a government agency, but instead is an independent, non-profit 501(c)(3) organization.
Three of EVLT’s conserved parcels are in front of the Stanley Hotel – see the lots colored in purple on the accompanying map. Under the town leadership of Mayor Bill Pinkham, these lots were placed under permanent conservation easements in a legal agreement with the Town of Estes Park in November 2008. As part of the process, EVLT thoroughly documented the conservation values of these properties, including the viewshed toward the Stanley Hotel (Lots 5 and 6) and the wetland area on Black Canyon Creek (Lot 8). Lot 4 (behind Safeway/Upper Stanley Village) remained zoned as commercial property.
By definition, a Conservation Easement is a voluntary legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust. It preserves in perpetuity the conservation values of the land. It is the responsibility of the land trust to evaluate the conservation values of the property. Before the easement is put in place, EVLT and the landowner agree to limits on the uses of the property. Once in place, any future owner must abide by the limitations of use created by the easement, and the land trust assumes the responsibility of enforcement should conservation values be violated.
When a land trust is approached by a landowner concerning the possibility of placing a conservation easement on property, the land trust conducts an extensive evaluation of the conservation merits of the property. Not every vacant property meets the requirements of a conservation easement. EVLT has developed a ranking system to assist in this process. Each property is subjectively evaluated based on the following nationally recognized standards:
- Open space in the entryway into Estes Park, RMNP, or Arapaho-Roosevelt National Forest
- Valuable to community for scenic character
- Protects scenic vistas or view corridors
- Creates larger block of contiguous open space
- Valued as wetland, floodplain, or riparian area
- Valued as wildlife habitat
- Contains native ecosystems of educational or scientific value
- (and some additional credit is given for properties of historical or recreational value)
Credit is deducted for properties that are small (under five acres) or contiguous with commercial development or properties that demonstrate hazardous issues. Additional deduction of credit is done if the evaluation anticipates difficulty in accessing, enforcing, monitoring, or other issues of stewardship or management. Deductions are also made if the ownership of the property is divided, difficult, fragmented, or inaccessible.
In initial meetings with the landowner, EVLT explains the financial obligations of the owner if the conservation easement is finalized. Current costs for a new easement generally range from $10,000 to $20,000 and involve contribution to a stewardship investment fund to pay for future monitoring and enforcement of the easement. Once the owner decides to proceed with a conservation easement, EVLT evaluates the property’s conservation values. The owner specifies any uses they wish to retain, and EVLT determines whether those uses jeopardize the conservation values.
EVLT has not done a formal evaluation of Lot 4 as a potential conservation easement because the owner (the Town of Estes Park) has not requested it. The language of the April 1 ballot issue suggests possible use of Lot 4 for public recreational use, trails, hiking, biking, horseback riding, tables and shelters. On a parcel of 6.88 acres, further clarification of these uses (while preserving conservation values) would need careful specification before EVLT could proceed.
A request has been made that EVLT publically state whether or not the organization could accept a conservation easement on Lot 4. Although EVLT realizes this would be helpful to voters, it is impossible for EVLT to make such a declaration prior to clear negotiations with the owner.
EVLT’s Directors have consistently maintained they would consider taking a conservation easement on Lot 4 if the owner requests it, but that will only be a first step (out of 22) toward completion. At this point, it is impossible for the Board to state whether or not it would accept the conservation easement.
“Preserving open spaces for future generations” is the mission of EVLT. That mission is achieved by protecting those easements already in place and working toward adding new easements which meet high standards of conservation value. There are no perfectly clear or easy answers in the Lot 4 discussions. As stated in our mission statement, EVLT is an advocate for protection of the lands that are “valleys, wetlands, streams, ranch lands, and wildlife habitat in the Estes Valley and surrounding area” and “lands adjacent to Rocky Mountain National Park and the Arapaho-Roosevelt National Forest.” That is our mission, and although it is not simple, it is also our passion.
Please visit EVLT’s website at www.evlandtrust.org to learn more about our mission and share your questions and concerns. We welcome your membership and your participation in accomplishing our goals.