An easement is an insurance policy to preserve scenic beauty, protect water quality, conserve wildlife habitat, protect public access, and provide opportunities for outdoor recreation

Guest Post by Ruth Platner (guest posts are moderated, but not approved or endorsed by the CCA Steering Committee)

In the last 15 years there have been 5 major statewide open space referendums for the preservation of land for over $100 million in Rhode Island. These state ballot initiatives in the 1998, 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2012 general elections were approved overwhelmingly by Charlestown voters who gave the state questions from 71 percent to 78 percent approval.

The 78 percent approval came in 2000 when there was also a local open space question for $2 million on the November ballot. At the 2002 Financial Town Meeting an additional $1 million open space question passed and members of the Conservation Commission circulated a petition to add a $2 million open space question to the 2004 Financial Town Referendum.

Most voters assume that when they vote to approve these funds, they they will be used to acquire and permanently protect land. The RI Department of Environmental Management (DEM) requires that “property acquired with grant funds must be maintained and managed in the condition and for the purpose specified in its approved grant application in perpetuity. Each recipient shall execute a perpetual conservation easement, or similar document.” DEM requires a conservation easement because they know that land without permanent legal protection will sooner or later be converted to other uses.

In 2012 the Town Council acquired 76 acres of land, now known as Charlestown Moraine Preserve using the funds from the 2004 open space bond. The ink is barely dry on the deed and already a few are arguing against legal protection for the land.

Cheryl Dowdell recently wrote here and to the newspaper, Deb Carney wrote to the newspaper, and Democratic Town Committee members wrote in their own publications against a conservation easement on the land. For now I’ll just respond to Mrs. Dowdell’s piece which was posted here.

She states that the property has been permanently taken out of private development. Without an easement, the property can be developed by the town and in fact could be privately developed depending on the proposal. An easement would protect the land from development, simply having purchased the land will not.

She states that two house lots were taken out of the open space purchase. Those house lots were taken out before the Town could purchase the land – they were never part of the open space purchase. The lots were sited next to other developed lots, in the least environmentally sensitive area, and allowed the price for the land to be lowered by about $600,000 to an amount the town could afford.  Lots in that area have a maximum price of about $140,000, so the town appears to have made a good choice to wait to purchase until after that subdivision happened.

Mrs. Dowdell claims that there was only newspaper notice about the land purchase. I certainly agree that too few people read the newspaper, but there were three town wide mailings that went to every household about the hearings taking place for the land, with the last mailing detailing the proposed purchase for open space. Residents were encouraged to attend and hundreds did. There were more voters at this hearing than usually vote in the all day referendum for school or municipal spending. Only three people spoke against the purchase and they are now among the people arguing against an easement.

Ms. Dowdell and perhaps a few others appear not to know what conservation easements are. Charlestown’s other open space properties are protected with conservation easements. Even the open space in housing developments that Mr. Dowdell has been involved in have conservation easements over the open space. Without a restriction, there would be nothing to stop the land owner from eventually developing more house lots in the open space.

A conservation easement is a legal agreement between a landowner (in this case the town) and a land trust or government agency that permanently limits uses of the land in order to protect its conservation or recreation values for future generations. It allows landowners to continue to own and use their land. An easement could protect public access and prohibit subdivision or other development. An easement selectively targets only those rights necessary to protect specific conservation values.

Mrs. Dowdell refers to groups that “want an easement”. I’m not sure any group wants an easement. It represents a tremendous responsibility. It is a responsibility that these groups are formed to assume, but it’s certainly not a prize. I’m not including Mrs. Dowdell in this, but some of the voices raised against an easement are masters of slander. They may very well succeed in frightening off organizations that would normally take the easement.

A conservation easement is not a giveaway as Mrs. Dowdell has described it. It is much more an insurance policy to preserve scenic beauty, protect water quality, conserve wildlife habitat, protect public access, and provide opportunities for outdoor recreation. When we vote to approve state funding for open space there is a requirement that the land be protected with an easement. We should expect the same of our local open space bonds.

Mrs. Dowdell expresses confidence that future town councils “will have the same sense of place and preservation as the current membership“. I certainly hope so, but it hasn’t been true of past town councils and I’d rather go with the insurance policy that an easement provides, than bet on every future town council being good stewards of land.

Ruth Platner

Ruth is the current Chair of the Charlestown Planning Commission and has been involved in land use issues in Charlestown for over 20 years.