- Glenn Russell
- Above: Meg Handler and David Kaminsky in their Hinesburg home
When Meg Handler and her husband, David Kaminsky, purchased 121 acres of woodlands in Underhill two years ago, they would have been hard-pressed to find a more scenic and untrammeled piece of real estate of its size in Chittenden County. The land, which abuts a state forest on the western slope of Mount Mansfield, features large stands of beech trees as well as a brook with natural pools and small waterfalls.
But Handler, a Realtor with Coldwell Banker Hickok & Boardman Realty in Burlington, said they didn't buy the property to log it, farm it, subdivide it or live on it themselves. Instead, the Hinesburg couple made an investment in the land's intrinsic ecological value: as a piece of a larger block of undeveloped forestland that is critical wildlife habitat and vital to clean water downstream.
"I am very concerned about water quality in Vermont," Handler explained in a recent interview. "The more construction that happens at the top of the stream, the more it degrades the water quality as it moves downhill."
Handler and Kaminsky gladly gave up their right to develop the land in the future by donating a conservation easement to the Vermont Land Trust, one of the country's oldest and largest land conservation groups. Now in its 43rd year, the VLT has helped protect nearly 700,000 acres of land in the Green Mountain State, the majority of which is privately owned. Its goal is simple: to conserve land for future generations.
Much of that land remains accessible to the public as town forests, public trails, community swimming holes or other recreational areas. Even if Vermonters are unfamiliar with the VLT, there's a good chance they've visited open spaces it has helped to protect, such as Shelburne Farms, Centennial Woods in Burlington and South Burlington, Snake Mountain Trail in Addison, the Bolton Valley Backcountry & Nordic trail system, the East Montpelier trails, and the Kingdom Trails Association network in Lyndonville.
Nick Richardson is the VLT's president. As he explained, the Montpelier-based nonprofit isn't opposed to development per se, provided it's well planned and done sustainably. He pointed out that much of the development in Vermont in recent years has occurred in and around Burlington, Stowe, Middlebury, the Upper Valley and other economically thriving areas.
While development can be good for the economy, the resulting "parcelization" of open spaces often leads to more road building, which can disrupt the connectedness of forests and farmlands. This in turn alters wildlife habitats, disturbs plant species and degrades water quality. Disruptions to rivers, streams and vernal pools are especially important now, Richardson said, as Vermont adjusts to the impacts of global warming.
"Mount Mansfield is getting 20 percent more rain than it did 20 years ago, probably because of the changing climate," Richardson said. It's one reason that Handler and Kaminsky's gift was so important.
Indeed, the VLT now prioritizes the lands it conserves differently than it did decades ago. Thanks in part to better climate science, as well as environmental research and preservation done by partner organizations such as the Nature Conservancy and the University of Vermont's Gund Institute for Environment, "We know exactly where we need to focus our conservation efforts," Richardson said.
Vermont is fortunate, he noted, in that much of the state's most ecologically sensitive land has already been set aside for protection. And though Vermont is one of the smallest states, it has one of the nation's highest rates of land conservation, with one in 10 acres of all privately held land protected for future generations.
The VLT uses several tools to accomplish that goal, including buying and accepting donations of the most sensitive lands. However, as Richardson explained, the most common tool for protecting open spaces is a conservation easement, which places restrictions on how the land can be used. In the case of Handler and Kaminsky's Underhill property, their easement precludes them from subdividing the land or using it for farming or commercial recreation.
That said, the couple can still log its woods sustainably, set up a maple sugaring operation and build noncommercial recreational trails. And landowners can meet with land trust staff and decide how best to protect the property without giving up those things that make it special to the owner. As Handler put it, "It's not an all-or-nothing proposition."
People often assume that the land trust only works with very wealthy landowners who own hundreds of acres. But Richardson pointed out that his organization has protected sites as small as a single acre — though more commonly it works on parcels in the 50- to 100-acre range.
"Many of the folks who make the choice to conserve land are not wealthy," he said. "They're regular Vermonters who care about their land and want to see it managed in a certain way and are really committed to land conservation."
Another common misconception is that land trust property must be kept pristine and out of production. But, as Richardson noted, many such properties continue to function as working farms and dairies. And that land can still be sold or bequeathed to others.
Some landowners are still reluctant to put their land in conservation, fearing that it will reduce its future market value. Handler, a Realtor herself, acknowledged that her property would have yielded the greatest financial return if it were subdivided and sold for development. But she pointed out that the tax benefits for conserving land were significant. The federal government allows landowners a tax deduction equal to the value of the easement itself. That deduction can be claimed all at once or spread over several years.
Richardson said that most people who purchase or set aside land for conservation are excited to learn more about it. And the VLT's staff of foresters and ecologists is happy to walk those properties with landowners and educate them about the plant and animal species that live there. As he put it, "It's an incredible way to get to know the land you own and the land you love."