A primer for landowners looking to conserve rather than cash in

— Photo from Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy
Open air: In New York, over 90 land trusts and the Department of Environmental Conservation have worked to protect over 2.7 million acres, like the 46-acres of the Normans Kill Preserves in Bethlehem, placing the state fifth in the country for land conserved. 

NEW SCOTLAND — Bethlehem, a long-time suburban town contiguous to the city of Albany and currently in the midst of explosive growth, is pairing up with its more rural neighbor, New Scotland, to host a workshop for landowners on how they can conserve their properties for future generations.

A lot of preservation of open space is going to have to happen through individuals, not through government, said New Scotland Councilman Adam Greenberg. He helped organize the Feb. 7 event “to educate people on what they can do as individuals, and the different organizations they can contact if they’re thinking about preserving their own land.”

All parties are reliant on one another for success, said Karen Shaw, open-space planner for the town of Bethlehem.

“Unfortunately, towns don’t have a whole lot of power; municipalities don’t have a whole lot of power and, currently, really no funding to support conservation projects,” she said. “So we rely heavily on our conservation organizations like Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy, Scenic Hudson, and Open Space Institute.”

When towns work with land trusts, Shaw said, they can piece together conservation projects that are important to the entire community.

Two towns

While New Scotland has a few upscale housing developments in the works, it still retains a lot of open land and farmland. Bethlehem, an early suburb of Albany, is in the midst of explosive growth.

The towns are roughly the same size — Bethlehem is 52 and New Scotland is 58 square miles. There is, of course, the population disparity: Bethlehem with about 35,000 residents has nearly four times New Scotland’s 9,000. And yet, both towns can boast of having among the best school districts in the area, if not the state; the residents, who are overwhelmingly homogenous, predominantly white, in each municipality are well-educated — 45 percent of New Scotland residents have a bachelor’s degree or higher; in Bethlehem, it’s nearly 59 percent.

In both towns, the household income of residents is significantly more than that of the average Albany County or United States household. In Bethlehem, the median household income, according to the United States Census Bureau, is $96,384, which means that half of the households in town earn more than number. In New Scotland, the median household income is $90,370.

With so much in common, it makes the two towns’ differences even more stark. Chief among them, home building; while Bethlehem has exploded with development, New Scotland has slowly increased its stock.

In 2000, there were 12,459 housing units in Bethlehem; in New Scotland, there were 3,470. By 2017, in Bethlehem, there were 14,485 units; in New Scotland, there were 3,559 housing units, according to the United States Census Bureau.

New Scotland currently lacks the infrastructure to support development on a Bethlehem-sized scale. “We don’t have public water or public sewer in most areas, so without that development pressure at the moment, we’re not in the same position Bethlehem is in,” said Councilman Adam Greenberg.

Also, Bethlehem is contiguous with the city of Albany.

However, no municipality in Albany County save for the town of Colonie — which has a population of about 83,500 — has allowed for more housing units to be built in recent history than the town of Bethlehem. Between 2000 and 2015, Bethlehem issued over 2,100 building permits for single- and multi-family housing; during that same period, New Scotland handed out fewer than 300 permits.

According to the most recent data available from the Capital District Regional Planning Commission, for example, between 2013 and 2016, Bethlehem issued 286 building permits that allowed for 680 housing units to be built at a cost of close to $115 million; 349 were in buildings with five or more units, 243 were single-family homes, and 68 were in three- or four-unit buildings. In that same period, 45 homes were built in New Scotland. In Colonie, over 1,000 units were built.

Development in Bethlehem has continued unabated.

In 2018, in his first state of the town address, Supervisor David VanLuven said that Bethlehem had 1,200 housing units, mostly single-family homes, proposed for construction. “Bethlehem is growing, and it is going to continue to grow,” VanLuven said. The town needs to look at creative ways to guide residential growth and manage the traffic burden, he stated.

In this year’s state of the town address, VanLuven highlighted three ongoing programs related to future growth.

“First,” he said, “we will continue to steadfastly review proposed developments, and require them to not only meet the letter of town codes but to protect the character of surrounding neighborhoods.” In the past, VanLuven said, that process typically meant pushing developers to build fewer homes to address traffic concerns and to build those units in character of the existing housing stock.

“Second,” he said, the town will continue its “intensive effort” to update its comprehensive plan, last updated in 2005. “Updating the comprehensive plan … Will help us to collectively agree on what is important for to our town; identify the challenges we face and identify the actions we must take.” VanLuven said. “We cannot sit idly and hope for the best. Ensuring a good future for Bethlehem will require action, and it will require us to work together.”

“Third,” in 2019, he said, the town will work with landowners who are interested in conservation of their property

Easements

In Bethlehem, said Shaw, there is a local Conservation Easement Exemption Program that allows residents to significantly reduce their property taxes.

Shaw is the organizer of a Feb. 7 event, that will take place from 6 to 8 p.m., at the at Five Rivers Environmental Education Center in Delmar. At the event, private landowners as well as professionals from the Open Space Institute, Scenic Hudson, Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy, Rensselaer Plateau Alliance, Pine Hollow Arboretum, and Albany County Land Bank, will be on hand to explain the process of land conservation.

Bethlehem, Shaw said, has a “term conservation easement” program, where landowners can choose how long they wish to have an easement on their property.

Agreeing to an easement term that lasts between 15 (the minimum) and 29 years, will reap a landowner a 50-percent property-tax exemption on their town, county, and Bethlehem Central School District tax bills.

Choosing a term conservation easement of 30 to 49 years, accords the landowner a 75-percent exemption; between 50 and 75 years, an 85-percent exemption; and, if owners choose to place their land in a perpetual easement, they will receive a 90-percent property-tax exemption on their town, county, and BCSD tax bills.

“For someone who really doesn’t have any immediate future plans or wants to see the land stay open forever, and they have the resources to do that,” the Conservation Easement Exemption Program, Shaw said, is a good deal. “The town basically is giving them a tax break to say, ‘Thank you for that.’ Because what they’re essentially doing is keeping houses from being built … and reducing traffic impacts that might come from future development.”

“So that’s really a community amenity,” Shaw said of landowners who choose to conserve their land.

Kris and John Sigsby, the third landowners in Bethlehem to sign onto the program, Shaw said, will be at the Feb. 7 event to talk about their experience conserving 11 acres of vacant land they own located across the street from their home on Bender Lane, which is a particularly busy road, Shaw points out.

The Sigsbys chose a perpetual easement for their 11 acres.

According to the town, the land had an assessed value of $126,700, for which the Sigsbys paid $3,735 in town, county, and school-district taxes annually. After the exemption was applied, their tax bill on the 11 acres became $374 per year.

In Bethlehem, for a piece of property to earn an easement exemption, it has to be a minimum of five acres and has to have an “open-space value” that benefits the town, which is determined by using a criteria list that was developed for the Town of Bethlehem Open Space Plan.

Among the 25 criteria used to determine open-space value are

— Is the land adjacent to: a preserve, or land that is conserved already, or a town conservation easement, or a bicycle and pedestrian priority network, or a community educational facility, or wildlife corridor;

— Does the parcel seeking an exemption contain: a known wetland, or a stream, or land that is currently in active agricultural use or has prime soils for farming, or a forest patch.

The criteria scores range from moderate, which is between two and seven; to high, which is between eight and 11; to significant, which is between 12 and 19.

There is no minimum criteria score that a parcel must earn to be considered for Bethlehem’s Conservation Easement Exemption Program.

“To explain further,” Shaw writes in an email to The Enterprise, “the Town has a 5-member volunteer Conservation Easement Review Board (CERB) who considers the quantitative ‘score’ of an applicant’s parcel along with any other qualitative factors that may relate to the potential conservation value of the land before deciding if the CERB will recommend the parcel for the CEE program to the Town Board.”

The qualitative factors that the Conservation Easement Review Board may consider, according to Shaw, are scenic quality, historic value, and development pressure on the parcel.

“During this evaluation process (studying the conservation value of the parcel given both the quantitative and qualitative attributes),” Shaw writes, “the Town also works closely with the landowner and may do a site visit to gain more insights.”

Conserving open space

As of 2016, fifty-six million acres of land had been voluntarily conserved in America, according to the National Land Trust Alliance.

In New York, over 90 land trusts and the Department of Environmental Conservation have worked to protect over 2.7 million acres, placing the state fifth in the country behind Maine, with about 5.8 million acres; California, with close to 5 million acres; Montana, with 3.5 million acres; and Colorado, which has about 3 million acres of protected land.

Towns and land trusts can help landowners find the conservation program that best benefit their property.

—  The New York Forest Tax Law Program

Giles Wagner, a Bethlehem resident, Shaw said, will be at the Feb. 7 event to discuss how he conserves his land through the New York Forest Tax Law Program. Commonly called “480-a,” after the section of tax code it relates to, the program reduces a participant’s property tax.

To be eligible, a participant must: agree to a 10-year commitment; adhere to a forestry-management plan that governs, among other things, the participant’s commercial harvests; and own at least 50 acres of woods and agree not to subdivide the land any further. However, for example, if a participant had 200 acres, then the land could be divided into four 50-acre subdivisions.

For that commitment, a landowner can receive a property-tax exemption of up to 80 percent of the assessed value of the program-enrolled acreage. For each year a tax break is received, the owner has to follow a forestry management plan for the next 10 years.

Giles Wagner’s commitment to keeping his land a forest, Shaw said, is a benefit for the entire community. “We get to benefit from all of the natural-systems services like water-quality protection, the wildlife habitat that exists on his land, the fresh air that we breathe from the trees that he’s managing — all of that,” Shaw said. “Those are community benefits that we get because Giles is supported by the state’s forestry program.”

— A conservation easement

In 2013, the 118-acre Strawberry Fields Nature Preserve in Amsterdam became protected by a conservation easement with the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy. On Feb. 7,  Jeff Leon, son of the preserve’s original owner, Alexander Leon, will be at Five Rivers to talk about Strawberry Fields.

A conservation easement permanently restricts how land can be used and developed. It is a voluntary legal agreement between the landowner and a land trust or a government agency. Landowners retain most of their rights; like their right to own, use, and sell their land.

The conservation easement is tied to the land’s deed in perpetuity, establishing that any future owners have to use the land as the original landowner intended. In the case of Strawberry Fields, the MHLC acts as the conservation-easement holder, and is responsible for ensuring that the original landowner’s conservation wishes are protected.  

According to the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy, the donation of a  conservation easement may qualify the donor for an income-tax credit of 25 percent of the property taxes paid during the year to the local municipality, county, and school district.  At the federal level, according to the MHLC, landowners may qualify for an income-tax deduction of up to 50 percent based on the fair-market value of their donation.

“What’s interesting about that particular preserve,” Shaw said of Strawberry Fields, is that Leon and his wife have a “really financially successful” one-acre farm on the site. “So, not only is [the Leon family] living on this conserved land that’s got trails and things that the public can use, but, also, it has a farm,” Shaw said.

“And now is that replicable in 100 different ways in our town?” Shaw asked of repeating the success of Strawberry Fields in Bethlehem. “Not necessarily, but it may spark some ideas of what can be done.”

— Purchasing of development rights

The Feb. 7 event will focus on the different ways that open space can be conserved, but Shaw also offered an example of conservation that will be discussed: The purchase of development rights from land owners.

Typically used to conserve farmland, the purchase of development rights is a voluntary protection technique that pays the landowner for permanently preserving their land for agricultural use only, which is accomplished by placing a conservation easement on the land.

To determine the value of development rights, the land’s restricted value is subtracted from its full-market value. For example, if the full-market value of a parcel of land is $1 million, which is to say how much the land would sell for if it could be developed, but it’s determined that the land’s restricted value (its value with an easement placed on it) is $250,000, then the landowner is eligible to be paid the difference: $750,000.

In New York State, if a landowner were eligible to be paid $750,000 for his or her land, and a land trust decided that it wanted to purchase those development rights, then it could take advantage of a grant from the Department of Agriculture and Markets that would pay for 75 percent of the development rights, leaving the land trust on the hook for $187,00.

Locally, in 2003, with New York State making a grant of $628,670, Indian Ladder Farms became the the first farm in Albany County to sell its development rights. Currently, the Lansing farm in Colonie is trying to raise enough funds to use a $389,710 grant secured by the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy through the state’s Farmland Protection Program to do the same thing — remain forever agricultural.

Conservation in New Scotland

New Scotland, as Greenberg mentioned earlier, is not subject to the same development pressure that consumed Bethlehem. “That being said, we definitely are always looking for ways in which to preserve open space,” he said. “You know, we created the new Hilton Park, and with our new hamlet zoning, we took open space into account.”

The New Scotland hamlet law, which was adopted last May, offers developers different town-approved options for situating projects that are intended to preserve open space.

Clustering, according to the hamlet law, grants residential,
commercial, institutional, or mixed-use development to be set in a way that allows for more open space.

Greenberg explains, if a developer has 100 acres and the land is zoned for two-acre lots, then 50 homes can be built on the site. With clustering, he said, the town would allow the developer to put those 50 homes on, say, 25 acres, which would free up 75 acres of land for open space. In this example, Greenberg said, a developer may like the idea of clustering homes because it could significantly decrease infrastructure costs.

A conservation subdivision, Greenberg said, would take clustering to the next level. In addition to densely situating homes, the developer is asked to examine the environmental issues that are on the site. “Maybe there are certain areas that should be preserved or untouched and we want you to take that into account, and build around those environmentally sensitive areas … Maybe it’s a stream, maybe there’s a certain animal habitat that you should preserve,” Greenberg said.

Rarely, a town owns land outright to protect it.

In December 2016, New Scotland approved taking ownership of 14 acres of land at the corner of Hilton Road and Route 85A from the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy. The town had already owned an acre of land adjacent to the property.

By accepting the donation, New Scotland agreed to abide by the perpetual restrictions placed on the land. That said, among other things:

— The town agrees to use the property only as a park;

— The property is to be used for the benefit of the public as an open space and recreational area;

— Impervious surfaces — areas that water cannot pass through — are not to exceed 20 percent of the total acreage of the property; and

— The town is not allowed to sell, lease, exchange, or donate the property to any entity that will not continue to use it as a public park.

 

— Photo from Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy
Open space: The 46 acres of the Normans Kill Preserve in Bethlehem is among the more than 5,000 acres protected by the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy in Albany, Schenectady, and Montgomery counties.

 

 

The Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy

To make a conservation project a success, said Mark King, executive director of the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy, “one of the key elements is the willing landowner.”

Typically, when a property is being donated for conservation, King told The Enterprise last year, “It almost always begins with the land owner and the owner’s sense of their property and its place.”

Indeed, in a study by researchers from Indiana University of 187 private landowners who placed conservation easements on their properties, the number-one reason given for establishing an easement was attachment to place, the strong sense of connection the owner felt for the land.

Last year, Don and Donna Kelly donated 30 acres of their land in Knox to the the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy. With that donation, the Bozenkill Conservation Corridor became one continuous preserve stretching over 448 acres from the Bozenkill Preserve at Westfall Road in Altamont, west a few miles to the Wolf Creek Falls Preserve in Knox.

Having been raised in Altamont, Don Kelly has been interacting with the land since his father, a biologist at the University at Albany, would hunt for grouse on it. Since 1990, Don and Donna Kelly have lived on the edge of the Bozenkill Valley. In 2007, the Kellys purchased the 30 acres from a private owner and, as Don Kelly told The Enterprise at the time, it had always been the couple’s intention to hold the land for preservation and eventually donate it.

Not content with his gift alone, Kelly implored his fellow landowners to protect the Bozenkill by donating parcels of land. “The Bozenkill Valley is a special and rare place, a place for everyone to enjoy and find serenity in their own lives,” he told The Enterprise.  

A willing landowner, according to King, is a one of the key elements in a successful conservation project, and, also, one of the trickiest.

In the Indiana University study, the factor mentioned least often by landowners as motivation for placing an easement on their property: financial. In the case of the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy’s 35 acres in Slingerlands, it would seem that, up until only very recently, that the previous owner’s only motivation was financial; she had spent almost an entire decade trying to develop the site.

But throughout much of that nearly 10-year period, working in the background, piecing together the components to ensure, should the time come, a successful transition, was the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy.

The time eventually came, King said, when the original landowner had become mired in the development process, and realized that, with the number of challenges and hurdles involved and how long it would take to make the project work, the end result wasn’t worth her effort.

“I think we offered a viable alternative in her thinking, and that shifted the course of it,” King said. In June 2018, the MHLC acquired the land, and, soon enough, the work began again.

Acquiring the land was winning the battle; to win the war, the MHLC needed to replenish its coffers.

Although the land has been donated, the conservancy, for years before it had even acquired the site, had made significant investment in the property, King told The Enterprise last year. There were legal complications and issues surrounding the land that had run up significant costs for the conservancy. And, with every property the MHLC acquires, it sets aside funding for long-term stewardship, King said.

Community support was critical at the time.

“If the community doesn’t want to see it happen, obviously, it won’t happen,” King said. In conservation, as in real estate, it’s all about location, location, location.

“The land is adjacent to Five Rivers and the frontage on a very busy street where there’s a lot of traffic, and, where, frankly, there’s people backed up in traffic, sitting there looking right at that spot on a number of mornings during the week, King said. “Particularly now, that [there is roadwork], traffic really backs up at that spot. And I think people see that and they say, ‘Wow, this is important.’

“With the Bethlehem Children’s School nearby, you’ve got folks dropping their kids off, so they’re next to it all the time. You know, a lot of factors fell together and made it happen.”

And King also points to the development strain Bethlehem is under as another reason there is a very strong interest in the area; residents want to see development controlled and limited.

In certain areas, he said, there is the sense that too much development has happened already, and too much has been lost. “That creates a rallying point for people to come forth and work with us to make this happen,” King said.