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With thousands of acres, millions of dollars, land trusts are a force in local development

From the Pennsylvania suburbs through to the Poconos and South Jersey, thousands of acres of environmentally sensitive land are being preserved each year through land trusts.

Aerial view of Rushton Woods Preserve and surrounding land.  The preserve is owned by the Willistown Conservation Trust in Chester County. DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer
Aerial view of Rushton Woods Preserve and surrounding land. The preserve is owned by the Willistown Conservation Trust in Chester County. DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer Read moreDAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer

The Dietrich family spent decades stitching together 1,505 acres in Chester County for a farm they called Bryn Coed — "wooded hill" in Welsh.

But they faced a dilemma when they wanted out of agriculture. If they sold to a developer, up to 700 homes might be built, radically altering the character of the land they painstakingly assembled.

Instead, the family turned to Natural Lands and signed a preservation deal in 2016 that calls for just 39 homes on large lots and a nature preserve with miles of trails that opens to the public this fall. The price they got — though undisclosed — was lower, but the satisfaction more than compensated, said Richard Dietrich, 48, a family spokesperson who grew up in Chester County.

"This idea of conserving the land was something we wanted to do for a really long time," Dietrich said.

It's the type of decision many landowners are making. About 12 percent of land in Chester County is under management of land trusts, nonprofits that either buy land to preserve it or negotiate deals known as conservation easements, which permanently restrict how a property can be used. Landowners can get tax breaks for donating land. They can sell it outright. Or, if they agree to an easement, they can even remain on the land as long as they adhere to restrictions.

Parcel by parcel, land trusts such as Natural Lands have become a force in the region, cobbling together large, complex deals such as Bryn Coed.

The trusts own or control tens of thousands of acres, including some of the most picturesque and environmentally sensitive tracts from Philadelphia's western suburbs to the Jersey Shore. They have full-time staffs with fund-raising experts capable of raising millions to finance purchases. They work with universities and run educational centers — some while maintaining trails, farms, and preserves, and even protecting the quality of the Delaware River watershed.

They sometimes encounter friction, as in the recent case of Stoneleigh garden, a preserved 42-acre estate owned by Natural Lands. The Lower Merion School District in Montgomery County recently sought to take the land through eminent domain, touching off a local fight. A similar situation is unfolding with a school district in Cumberland Valley in Western Pennsylvania.

Meanwhile, the New Jersey Conservation Foundation has challenged a natural gas company's right to use eminent domain to run a pipe on conserved land.

But land trusts clearly enjoy political and public support. This week, state lawmakers in Harrisburg introduced a bill to require local governments to get court approval to take land under conservation easements before using their power of eminent domain. It takes more than big landowners to make these transactions happen: Natural Lands, for example, received donations from 700 residents to help fund the Bryn Coed deal.

Though some officials have grumbled that trusts reduce taxable land, proponents say open space increases local property values and prevents costly overdevelopment.

In all, about 65 trusts own 88,000 acres in Pennsylvania and have easements on 262,000 acres, according to the Pennsylvania Land Trust Association. They have transferred 377,000 acres to government entities. In New Jersey, trusts own or hold at least 110,000 acres and have conveyed 107,000 acres to the government, according to the most recent National Land Trust Census.

A big chunk of Chester County

Perhaps nowhere else do trusts enjoy as much local support as in Chester County, where 16 land trusts hold portfolios of more than 57,000 acres through ownership or easements.

"You're putting together a protected mosaic over years," said Molly Morrison, president of Natural Lands. "It's a really long game."

Chester County, experiencing a growth boom, works with trusts on conservation because of their expertise and fund-raising ability, said William Gladden, director of the county's open-space program. About 27 percent of Chester County's land is preserved through government or trusts. The goal is 30 percent.

"Our efforts were built on the foundation that the private, nonprofit land trusts have laid," Gladden said.

What’s behind the growth?

Land trusts aren't new. But they have been encouraged over the last decade by legislative measures; approval of open-space ballot initiatives; and, at the federal level, tax incentives for farmers and ranchers donating conservation easements.

Private money also has flowed. The William Penn Foundation awarded nearly $30 million in grants for land protection over the last decade, mostly to help protect the Delaware River watershed. It also funded part of the Bryn Coed purchase.

"I think the biggest factor is, people are putting in time and money to make it happen," said Andrew M. Loza, executive director of the Pennsylvania Land Trust Association.

Rushton Woods Preserve, about seven miles east of Bryn Coed, is thriving, said Bonnie Van Alen. She's president of Willistown Conservation Trust, which owns the preserve. The trust raised $10.5 million to increase the preserve from 30 to 86 acres and build a new Rushton Conservation Center scheduled to open by fall. The trust just signed a research deal with the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University.

On a recent day, Van Alen walked through rows of vegetables planted on a farm at the preserve and headed to the new center, under construction with a timber-framed great room that will host educational programs and other events.

"I'd say we've been very fortunate to have a community with a very strong conservation ethic," Van Alen said.

And the public wants to see the result of their mission, said trust staffer Kat Gord. For example, Rushton Farm grows 30,000 pounds of crops a year, donates 15 percent to a food bank and operates a community-supported agriculture program.

Land faces enormous pressure

The New Jersey Conservation Foundation, which has helped preserve 125,000 acres, recently brokered a deal to preserve hundreds of acres at Cowtown Rodeo in Salem County.

The Nature Conservancy is also a player in South Jersey with seven preserves that include the 200-acre South Cape May Meadows Nature Preserve, a critical habitat for migrating birds.

"Over half of the municipalities have open-space ballot money now," said Michele Byers, executive director of the Conservation Foundation. "All those funds combined together provide some real leverage. The land trusts are able to bring in private capital and match it up."

Previously, Byers said, land trusts often sought to preserve land only when it was threatened; now they try to act earlier.

Yet despite such successes, Byers and others see challenges ahead. To win city- and suburban-dwelling millennials to the land-trust movement, some are moving into urban initiatives, she said.

"In the long run, I'm worried there won't be anybody left to defend the land and make sure it doesn't get diverted back to private use," Byers said. "The pressure to divert these lands to other purposes is enormous."

In fact, the New Jersey Conservation Foundation has sued the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, essentially challenging the right of natural gas companies to use eminent domain to build pipelines. The Conservation Foundation owns property and holds easements in Hunterdon County in the path of the PennEast Pipeline.

Byers observed wryly, "The land is saved in perpetuity — until it isn't."

Editor's Note: This story was revised to correct the name of Natural Lands' president.