Bill would restrict limits on land uses


(Note from WB: This article provides some good arguments against conservation easements; it's good for educational purposes.  Many people never read the small print, or understand it, until it is too late, and I can guarantee that many people have no idea what "in perpetuity" means...)
February 9, 2004

By Joe Kafka, Associated Press Writer
Rapid City Journal
Rapid City, South Dakota
To submit a Letter to the Editor:

Pierre, South Dakota - After fervent arguments from farmers and ranchers on both sides of the issue, the [South Dakota] House Agriculture Committee voted 9-4 Thursday for a bill that would slap a limit on future conservation easements.

Conservation easements place certain restrictions on the use of land, typically to preserve it as open space and preclude business and residential development. Landowners who agree to easements, which are offered by the state and federal governments as well as conservation groups, may either sell or donate some rights to use the land.

Easement rights may be donated or sold by landowners.

HB1194 specifies that conservation easements in South Dakota, with the exception of wetlands easements, may not be longer than 30 years. It would apply to easements granted after July 1 [2004]. Existing easements would not be affected.

Rep. Jim Lintz, R-Hermosa, said he offered the measure because many people are now accepting perpetual conservation easements. He argued that landowners should not be able to make deals that will forever control the use of property, precluding all future owners from certain uses of the land.

"It's the right to take away land rights from the next generation," Lintz said.

Many people who give away those future property rights may not fully understand what they're doing, he said.

"We're trying to keep people on the land, and we're trying to keep land open and free," Lintz said. "We're trying to protect individuals from getting into bad agreements."

Opponents said the Legislature would be taking away a property right if it limits the length of conservation easements that can prevent agricultural land from being plowed, trees from being cut and wildlife from being disturbed. They also said tax breaks could be jeopardized.

Gene Williams, who ranches near Interior, [South Dakota], told the committee that income from conservation easements can be [what, Exactly, does "can be" mean???] important to farmers and ranchers. Those payments can make the difference between selling out in tough times or staying in business, he said.

Landowners should be allowed to decide if they want their property protected forever from development, Williams said. Those lands often become more valuable, he said, giving the example of New York's Central Park.

"Conservation easements create what I would call islands of desirability among seas of commonality," Williams said. "They're an island of wildlife habitat and grasslands in a sea of corn and beans."

Conservation easements are beneficial to the environment and wildlife, according to Mike Held, administrative director of the state Farm Bureau. But he said HB1194 should be passed because perpetual easements are a bad idea.

HB1194 now goes to the House floor.

Opposition also came from David Gillen of White Lake, president of the South Dakota Corngrowers Association. Those who purchase or inherit land should not be saddled with permanent restrictions on use of the property, he said.

"We're borrowing from the future to satisfy the present," Gillen warned. "We're packing on baggage for our kids."

Another opponent, Mark Hollenbeck of the state Stockgrowers Association, said conservation easements have been obtained on about 3 percent of the private land in South Dakota. At the current rate of easements, there will be no unencumbered private property in the state in 800-900 years, he said.

"If we allow this to continue, sooner or later we're not going to have any land," Hollenbeck said, adding that future generations should not be bound by decisions made today.

"I don't believe you own the land when you're in your grave," he said.

Bill Fraas of Hot Springs said he has a conservation easement with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation on 450 acres of land. He said his children approved of the easement because it will ensure that the land stays wild and is never developed.

Another incentive for the easement was a six-year break on federal income taxes, Fraas said in support of the bill.

Also supporting HB1194, which now goes to the House floor, Wendi Rinehart of rural Highmore said the conservation easement on her family's ranch allows them to continue with their cattle operation. A large chunk of their property will remain as native prairie, she said.

"It is our land, which makes it our choice. This is a voluntary program," Rinehart said. "Where is the damage in saving native, virgin prairie?"

Rinehart said the bill is an affront to property rights. She said some of those who want to limit conservation easements do not like "conservation groups."

"Stewarding the land is what these easements are all about," she continued.

Looking around the packed meeting room, Rep. Larry Rhoden, R-Union Center, conceded that the issue is emotional. Before voting for the bill, he said it is wrong for present landowners to make decisions that can never be reversed by future landowners.

"What rights will the future property owner have if this trend continues?" he asked.

Rep. Bill Van Gerpen, R-Tyndall, who voted against the bill, said he is troubled by perpetual easements but does not feel he has a good enough grasp of the issue to support 30-year limits.

"I want to make sure when I take this giant step ... that my feet come down on solid ground," he said.


Copyright 2004, The Rapid City Journal.