The Lexicon of Sustainability: Land Trust

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In some parts of the country, farm land is valued more for its real estate potential than for what it can grow. As profitability remains challenging for present day farmers, some are looking to sell off their land. Bob Berner, retired Executive Director of the Marin Agricultural Land Trust, explains in this new video by Douglas Gayeton of the Lexicon of Sustainability project how land trusts provide guidance and economic support in the form of conservation easements to keep farms in production.

5 Quotes from Bob Berner, former Executive Director for the Marin Agricultural Land Trust, Nicasio, CA (Excerpted from a conversation with Douglas Gayeton)

Bob Berner
Bob Berner, former Executive Director for the Marin Agricultural Land Trust

Marin Agricultural Land Trust: MALT is a land trust, a private, nonprofit organization that was formed to actively work to conserve farmland in Marin County, California by acquiring conservation easement in voluntary transactions with agricultural landowners.

Definition of conservation easement: It's an agreement between a landowner and a land trust, land conservation organization, or in some cases, a public agency. The landowner agrees to limit the uses of the land to a particular purpose -- in our case, farmland. Other examples might be for habitat or natural resource conservation or open space. But our conservation is aimed at preserving the land as productive agricultural land. So the agreement creates a commitment on the part of the landowner to preserve the land as agricultural land for cultural use. The land trust, MALT, is the holder of the conservation easement and becomes responsible for stewardship of the easement, establishing a relationship with the [owner] who granted the easement and successive property owners to make sure that the terms of easement are respected and observed.

conservation easement


Benefits of conservation easements: Typically, the reason that the landowner is willing to sell the easement in order to give up certain property rights and commit the land to agricultural use is because land values in our community -- agricultural land values -- have escalated far beyond any values based on agricultural incomes.This creates over time a potential problem for agricultural landowners who wish to continue in agriculture because they may have to buy out partners or co-owners at market values, but it’s very difficult to do that with the income that’s generated by the land. So what the Marin Agricultural Land Trust offers to do is essentially to liquidate a part of the value of the land without the landowner having to sell the land, but only having to sell this prescription in the form of a conservation easement. And the proceeds of that sale now enable the landowner to do whatever he or she or they may wish and need to do to buy out partners or co-owners, pay out debt, invest in their operations and so forth. So again, it just means for the landowner to continue owning and preserving their property for agricultural use while generating some capital for other purposes -- and in some cases, helping to hold on to the land and keep it in the family.
land trust
Limitations on future land use: The agreement in the conservation easement is one whereby the property owner is giving up the right to do certain things for the property in the future. For example, in the case of an agricultural conservation easement, the landowner is giving up the right to subdivide and develop the land for non-agricultural purposes. That’s why the landowner may require a payment for giving up those rights because those rights could have substantial value. So MALT is compensating the landowner for the loss of value resulting from him or her giving up these future development rights.

How Marin might be different without land trusts: Agriculture has been a part of the history and life of Marin County for over 150 years. It is a fundamental part of the history, culture, environmental character and quality of life. So the loss of the third of the county that is still active and productive with agriculture use would dramatically change the character of the county and alter, I think in a very negative way, its environmental quality and the quality of life of the people in the county and the people who visit here. Helping to maintain and sustain agriculture and agriculture viability here is something that is broadly supported by residence and visitors alike.

Land Trust artwork

All images, artwork and video by Douglas Gayeton