Elise Eustace presented information about the organization to the Rotary Club of Cleveland on Tuesday.
The organization helps homeowners who want to preserve their land in an undeveloped state. The most popular way to do this is to set land aside as a conservation easement.
“It has to have in its essence natural beauty. It has to be part of a view shed. It has to have some kind of historic relevancy. It has to have some kind of intrinsic natural value,” Eustace said.
While many landowners pass their property on to the next generation, some bequeath their land to the nonprofit conservancy organization. Eustace said the land has to meet additional requirements for the organization accept it.
Some of the properties with easements have been in the family for generations. Some are registered with the century farm program through middle Tennessee State University. One of these is a farm in Townsend which is adjacent to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Other easements are preserving the outdoors for campers to enjoy.
“It is crucial that we work with the landowner in the way they want to preserve their land,” Eustace said. “We are here to assist landowners when they want to preserve their property in perpetuity. Its a really big step that means the land will never ... be commercially or residentially developed.”
The conservancy preserves 36,000 acres, Eustace said.
Among these there are 110 conservation easements. This land is mostly in East Tennessee, but the organization has also worked with some conservation easements in Georgia. Eustace said the organization checks periodically with these and owners to ensure that the land is being kept in line with the easement contract.
“We are actually going out and visiting every piece of property that we have ever had a partnership with, and that takes quite a bit of time those first few months of the year,” Eustace said.
Contracts that owners sign to preserve the land are legally binding, according to Eustace. She said the organization works with families to ensure every one understands what establishing an easement means.
“A lot of times they have seen development come up all along their property boundary,” Eustace said.
Many times landowners come to the organization, rather than the conservancy having to find wiling landowners. Word of mouth is good publicity for the nonprofit.
From drafting the document to the final signing involves a number of people, Eustace said.
A list is compiled of the plants, animals and natural water sources on the potential easement.
“That all has to be documented in a certain way,” Eustace said.
Easements are various sizes. Having a conservation easement does not prohibit farming on the land.
Federal tax incentives have made it possible for some property owners to afford to make the choice to preserve the land. Eustace said the incentives are good right now, but could be changing next year.
“There is a tax break for conservation easements. This year it is significant,” Eustace said. “This year it can assist a landowner at 50 percent over 15 to 16 years.”
This program comes up for renewal in Congress next year.