Juneau woman sets up land trust

Posted: Thursday, December 14, 2000

JUNEAU (AP) -- Businesswoman Deborah Marshall helped found the South East Alaska Land Trust five years ago because she didn't want other families to lose their land for failing to pay property taxes.

''My family came out from Philadelphia in the late 1880s. They had this beautiful piece of property on the Washington side of the Columbia River,'' Marshall said. When her grandparents died, her mother and aunts inherited the land but they couldn't hold on to it, she said.

Marshall worked with Bart Watson, a business consultant, to form the nonprofit SEAL Trust, one of five land trusts in Alaska.

Land trusts help landowners establish conservation easements on their property to protect the land from future development, even if the property changes hands.

SEAL Trust has one conservation easement in place and at least half a dozen in progress. The regional group is working with a Juneau family on a 92-acre parcel in Excursion Inlet, and on another large acreage on Admiralty Island across from West Douglas. Land in Haines, Gustavus and Kake also is slated for protection.

In the completed easement, the landowner wanted to donate land to the city of Juneau with certain public uses in mind. Now the land is protected in accordance with those plans, assuring the city will not sell or develop the property.

Jim King is in the process of placing a conservation easement on part of his property at Sunny Point. His land borders the Mendenhall Wetlands Wildlife Refuge and is about a mile east of the runway at the Juneau Airport.

King wants part of his property to remain as wetlands and function as part of the refuge. He saw a conservation easement as the best protection for the land.

''Properly done, it's a legal document that will prevent a future owner, or myself, from destroying the natural characteristics,'' he said.

King, a retired waterfowl biologist who helped establish the refuge years ago, could have donated the land to the refuge. But he was concerned that wouldn't be enough.

''When the refuge legislation was written, it had all kinds of provisions allowing road-building and airport expansion, so really, contributing land to the refuge is not really protecting land,'' he said.

Placing land under the restrictions of a conservation easement lessens its value and therefore lowers property taxes.

But land trusts and conservation easements are not about tax breaks, said Barb Seaman, executive director of Kachemak Heritage Land Trust in Homer. She said sometimes conservation easements don't even provide tax breaks.

That was the case with Yule Kilcher of Homer, a former state senator and grandfather of pop singer Jewel. He was the first person in Alaska to place a conservation easement on his land. Kilcher's 660 acres on Kachemak Bay is a working farm and spectacular waterfront property.

About 10 years ago, when he was in his mid 70s, Kilcher worked with Kachemak Heritage Land Trust to preserve a way of life on his land.

''Yule's purpose was to make sure it was always there for his kids to farm and live on. He wanted them always to have that place,'' Seaman said. ''The property taxes weren't reduced significantly because they allowed for a lot of development.''

A conservation easement doesn't simply serve a landowner; it must serve the public good as well. When a landowner approaches a land trust with a proposal, four aspects are considered -- cultural, scenic, habitat for wildlife and recreational value to the public.

Bruce Baker, a natural resource consultant who works with SEAL Trust, said there are cases in which a conservation easement can increase, not decrease, the value of land.

If a landowner has 10 acres, a conservation easement on 9 acres of the property could create a valuable package -- a small, developable piece of land guaranteed to neighbor permanent wildland.

Baker said the trust would have to see major benefits to the public to justify helping that landowner with a conservation easement.

''The first and foremost reason is protecting the conservation values,'' Baker said.

Property that has high recreational value and public access is the easiest to establish conservation easements on. Property that provides usable habitat for wildlife also is often a good candidate for a conservation easement, but often landowners overestimate the habitat value of land.

''People have come to us frequently with small parcels of land in the middle of a development, and we turn them down because we can't guarantee that we can protect the conservation values, or there really aren't conservation values on the property,'' Seaman said.

Protecting the owners' interest in land preservation over time and monitoring the conservation easement is the other major duty of the land trust.

Baker said the land trust enters into a legal obligation with the landowner to ensure the terms of the conservation easement are adhered to.

''There could be someone down the line who sees these as a nuisance to be circumvented,'' he said.

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