The Vermont Land Trust on Friday announced that it will not continue to support S.119 in its current form.
S.119, now in the House Judiciary Committee, would set criteria for conservation easement amendments and create a panel for reviewing the changes. Currently, there is no state law regulating conservation easement amendments.
The Vermont Land Trust and The Nature Conservancy have been working on the bill for two years and drafted much of the language.
One of the provisions in the legislation, a Category 3 amendment is highly controversial because it would give an easement-holder, typically a land trust, the ability to make major changes to the development rights as long as a special panel approves.
Critics say the Category 3 amendment provision could have a negative impact on donors because it would allow a land trust to revoke easements, eliminate the obligation to protect land and effectively allow development on property. About 30 percent of conservation easements are donated to trusts in Vermont; the rest are purchased. Most donors expect land that is under an easement to be protected in perpetuity. The Category 3 provision as outlined in S.119 could allow easement holders, such as the Vermont Land Trust and The Nature Conservancy, to “extinguish” easements through the new review process.
Gil Livingston, the executive director of the Vermont Land Trust, told members of the trust on Friday afternoon in a statement on the organization’s website that VLT agrees that the “current bill is too broad, so we are working on changes that would greatly reduce its scope.”
“Along with the 11 other members of the working group that gave birth to the legislation in 2012, our goal was to strengthen the law applied to amendments and to make sure the public conservation interests embedded in each easement governed any changes,” Livingston wrote.
The Vermont Land Trust statement was issued four days after stories about the proposed legislation appeared on VTDigger and Vermont Public Radio.
Livingston said members of the Vermont Land Trust and owners of conserved land had contacted the organization about S.119.
“While our members understand that we at VLT have deeply committed ourselves to the permanent protection of special places, those who care most about our work will test out thinking, and offer important ideas and perspectives,” Livingston said. “Those perspectives have impacted our thinking about the pending easement amendment legislation.”
John Echeverria, a land use expert, Vermont Law School professor and critic of S.119, has said the legislation could leave donors vulnerable to IRS audits and could undermine public faith in land conservation organizations.
“It is wonderful that VLT is listening to its members and has abandoned its support for S. 119, which VLT took the lead in drafting and advocating in the legislature,” Echeverria said. “But when the Legislature turns back to the easement issue next year one can only hope, in light of VLT’s track record on this issue, that the legislature will look beyond VLT for good ideas and advice.”
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