Ann Hooper will never forget the annoying sound of helicopters interrupting the peace and quiet of her woodland walks. As they flew just above the tree canopy, she would look up and shout, “Go away!” She knew who was in them: developers who wanted to turn her 47 acres, much of it a mixed pine and hardwood forest, into a checkerboard of subdivision lots.
Fortunately, Ann found a way to make the developers go away forever. She placed her land under the protection of a permanent conservation easement. Ann was determined that what is happening across much of America would never happen to the land she inherited from her parents.
A U.S. Forest Service study of tree loss in cities and urban communities based on 2009-2014 data and released in spring 2018 indicates that, due to development and numerous other causes, urban and community tree cover nationwide is declining at an alarming rate¬–about 175,000 acres annually, approximately 36 million trees per year.
Of 20 cities analyzed for tree cover loss in a separate 2012 study, Atlanta was among the highest, with tree cover falling from 53.9 percent to 52.1 percent, says Dr. David J. Nowak, a senior Forest Service scientist and lead author of both studies. The 2018 study also ranked Georgia worst in the country in significant annual acreage decline in urban and community tree cover, a decrease of 18,830 acres, largely because of Atlanta’s sprawl. Alabama was third worst with a loss of 12,890 acres annually.
Conservation easements on private land like Ann’s are an especially important tool to preserve trees in Atlanta, the self-proclaimed “City in a Forest.” Approximately 76 percent of Atlanta’s tree canopy is on single-family residential property, according to the Atlanta Planning Department.
How will an easement impact immediate and distant family?
How much land do we reserve to construct home sites or other structures in the future?
A conservation easement is a permanent agreement that is voluntarily entered into between a landowner and a qualified entity such as the Georgia-Alabama Land Trust, Inc. When landowners donate a conservation easement to a land trust, they give up some of the rights associated with the land, such as the right to subdivide it, but still own and can continue to use their land consistent with the purpose of the conservation easement, and can sell it or pass it on to their heirs. Because no two easements are alike, Land Trust representatives work with landowners to craft conservation easements that reflect both the landowner’s desires and the individual needs of the land being put under protection.
While the urge to preserve urban tree cover is a noble goal, the conservation easement process requires landowners to ask soul-searching questions. How will an easement impact immediate and distant family? How much land do we reserve to construct home sites or other structures in the future? Will an easement enable us to continue the legacy of our parents who bought this land? Then, there are the cold financial questions: How will an easement affect resale? Will the tax benefits justify relinquishing valuable development rights?
And, always, there’s the elephant in the room: Under the law, easements exist in perpetuity. A conservation easement runs with the land, and future owners, including heirs and purchasers of the property, will be bound by its terms.