Just how permanent are those conservation easements?

2-6-10 Flint RockBy BRUCE RITCHIE

Just how permanent is “perpetual” — when it comes to conservation easements?

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam in November touted the benefits of those landowner agreements not to develop as the Cabinet approved a deal to preserve 1,364 acres of a sod farm and cattle ranch in Polk County.

The benefits, Putnam said, include maintaining preserving green space and agricultural jobs at a fraction of the cost of the state buying the land and managing it.

Of the 2.4 million acres of conservation land purchased by the state since 1990, more than 425,000 acres is conservation easements.

They are called “perpetual” conservation easements. But are they really permanent?

The conservative National Center for Public Policy Research says the agreements could create problems for future generations if they really are permanent.

Changes in climate or scientific understanding may reduce the public benefit of some purchases. Surrounded by development, an “island” of conservation may no longer be as valuable when weighed against the need for, say, a hospital.

University of Virginia law professor Julia D. Mahoney wrote in a research paper that permanent conservation easements may create a legal mess for future generations. She argues that preservationists should rely on future generations to make wise land use decisions.

“Such an approach would compel today’s preservationists to abandon the illusion that they can save nature through calculated efforts to restrict the options of future generations,” she wrote. “Their descendants, however, might thank them.”

I’m not arguing against conservation easements or any other form of land purchase. I guess I’m just skeptical that some of the same political conservatives who favor them now won’t change their tunes in the future.

Remember that the Florida Department of Environmental Protection is undergoing — at the behest of the Legislature — a review of more than 3,000 acres that are actually owned by the state. DEP is determining whether the land is still needed for conservation or whether it can be sold to buy new land.

What’s to stop the Legislature in the future from directing DEP to evaluate whether some conservation easements are no longer needed? What’s to stop any government from changing its mind?

“Nothing is forever,” says Stephen J. Small, a Massachusetts attorney who specializes in such landowner agreements not to develop their property.

“But people should go into these transactions assuming perpetual means perpetual,” he said.

And when it comes to perpetual I would add “until the political winds change.”

Story and photo copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Floridaenvironments.com. Do not copy or republish without permission, which can be obtained from brucebritchie@gmail.com.