The Brandywine Conservancy, which owns or has helped landowners set up conservation easements, land preserves and federal and local tax benefits over 45,000 acres in Pennsylvania and northern Delaware, is asking for community comment on its work as it seeks its five-year re-accreditation before the Land Trust Accreditation Commission www.landtrustaccreditation.org.
Land trust and conservancy advocates set up an accreditation system after The Inquirer, the Washington Post and other news organizations in the early 2000s documented cases of other conservancy groups trading properties at preferential prices with wealthy and influential board members with little public benefit and considerable public expense.
"We were one of the first eight awarded accreditation back in 2008," Sherri Evans-Stanton, director of Brandywine's Environmental Management Center, told me. "Accreditation grew out of a number of tax-related concerns having to do with donations of easements."
The industry organized its accreditation process following establishment of the Land Trust Alliance, "a national organization that took it upon itself to identify specific standards and practices that the land trust community should live by," Evans-Stanton added. "From ethics and conlficts, to your documentation practices on easements and lands that you hold, [land trusts] are responsibile for monitoring every property that you hold an easement on, annually. These are very stringent requirements we have to follow. We felt it was really important. We were one of the four organizations that ehlped establish the Land Trust Alliance. We felt it was important to monintor the behavior for other organizaiotns. We're going up for renewal later this month," with comments "most useful if received by July 1."
Pennsylvania is a center of the land-conservancy movement, with 18 accredited groups, second only to California, which has more than four times the population and is many times larger in its physical area.
What are the benefits and costs of allowing private landowners lower taxes in exchange for agreeing to limit development? The benefit "is huge," if hard to measure, Evans-Stanton says. "One of our key areas is the headwaters of the Brandywine in Honey Brook, Pa., which is the drinking water supply for 140,000 people in the greater Wilmington area and in Pennsylvania. We are partnering with City of Wilmington to protect those drinking water supplies for its citizens. Chester County works with us through a preservation partnership. We help farmers protect their lands. We help people implement best practices to safeguard their water or improve it. For example, if you have cattle near water supplies you would want to fence them so they can't get into the river... There are really important reasons to protect open space.. Preserving open space for farmland is also critical. And we provide recreational opportunities (such as) the Brandywine Creek Greenway that involves 24 municipalities from Honey Brook all the way to the Delaware border."
How about the costs? Evans-Stantton referred me to Andrew Loza, who runs the Pennsylvania Land Trust Association, which lobbies for and offers technical assistance to land-trust landowners. "You will lose some tax revenue when land goes into parks or conservancy. But the studies find you get more revenues from the surrounding properties," Loza told me. His group has compiled and linked many studies at www.conservationtools.org, which I hope to review in depth.