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Land Trusts and Planning Commissions: Forging Strategic Alliances

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Preservation of open space has become a critical element of community planning practice, especially for those concerned with controlling sprawl and protecting natural resources. It is also one of the most challenging, because purchasing open space land is costly and regulating land use to protect such land poses legal and political difficulties. The maturing of the land trust movement over the past decade provides planning commissions an important resource in meeting this challenge.

Land trusts are nonprofit organizations whose primary purpose is the preservation of undeveloped open land of conservation value to the community. There is tremendous variation among land trusts, in size and scope, sophistication, types of land protected, and techniques used to protect land. This article will discuss how land trusts and planning commissions can work cooperatively to achieve their community’s open space protection goals. …

How Can Land Trusts Assist Planning Commissions?

Land trusts have valuable contributions to make in helping planning commissions to develop and implement open space plans and related elements of a comprehensive plan. They can also be helpful in securing open space set-asides as part of the development approval process. It is best when land trusts and planning commissions maintain a professional arms-length distance, while actively cooperating to achieve their common goals.

As grass-roots organizations, land trusts can help planners in the outreach process necessary to do good open space and comprehensive planning. The members and supporters of land trusts often have intimate knowledge of important natural areas and other lands targeted for protection as open space. They also form an important and vocal constituency favoring the formulation and implementation of open space plans. Land trusts that have professional staff can also provide important information and services to planning commissions that lack adequate staff resources.

Land trust staff or volunteers may be able to provide inventory, analysis, and mapping of important open space resources. They can also help planning commissions develop implementation measures to achieve the goals of open space protection and growth management. Once land has been identified in an open space plan or comprehensive master plan as worthy of preservation, a land trust can contact landowners to discuss the panoply of preservation tools that are available, creatively combining conservation easements, limited development, donations, bargain-sales, and purchase of land or conservation easements.

Sometimes a land trust may be able to package a transaction that could not easily be put together by the local government or the landowner. For example, a land trust may be able to help an elderly farm owner creatively protect a large farm property. A solution may involve several approaches, such as the sale of development rights (i.e. a conservation easement) on the farmland to the state or county; limited subdivision of a portion of the property for future sale or family use; pre-acquisition of a portion of the property for resale to a park and recreation commission; and/or sale of the farmland (restricted by the conservation easement) to another farmer. …

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Joel S. Russell, Esq., is Executive Director of the Form-Based Codes Institute (FBCI), a national think tank and training organization devoted to advancing the practice of form-based coding.

For 25 years before his appointment to FBCI he served as a self-employed planning consultant and attorney based in Northampton, Massachusetts working with municipalities, landowners, land trusts, and developers on zoning reform, form-based codes, comprehensive planning, and land conservation. He was founding Executive Director of the Dutchess Land Conservancy in New York State.

–bio note updated 03.27.14

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