Monitoring Conservation Easements
Volunteers from the Land Trust of the Eastern Panhandle fan out every spring and fall to inspect its conservation easements to make sure the land is being preserved as provided for in the legally recorded easement. With 50 easements total to cover, this is no small job. The monitoring visits are scheduled for early spring and late fall so that monitors can see into wooded areas and, in the case of agricultural lands, view the ground without disturbing any crops. Good weather is hoped for but does not always cooperate; a Land Trust team once monitored a forested 100 acres in Morgan County in steady rain and on several occasions has had to contend with an early snowfall.
Volunteers work from a field copy of the Baseline Documentation Report, containing GPS-located photos documenting the condition of the property at the time the easement was recorded. They also have copies of previous annual monitoring reports, which record gradual changes, such as the growth of trees or changing crop patterns. With these documents they can see whether there is something different and how it may relate to the easement itself. Easements usually limit any new construction to the farmstead complex or residential area(s), so they particularly look for evidence of new buildings or earth disturbance. Monitoring visits are always coordinated with the landowner, with the hope that he or she will be on hand for the visit itself. Some properties can be covered by vehicle in as little as half an hour; some require over an hour, even in a vehicle; and some need as much as two hours or more on foot, with considerable climbing.
Board member Lucien Lewin manages the monitoring in all three counties of the Panhandle (Jefferson, Berkeley, and Morgan), drawing on other board members and volunteers as needed. Since many of the easements in Jefferson and Berkeley Counties are held jointly with a county Farmland Protection Board (FPB), an FPB board representative is usually present and may have the lead if the FPB is the lead holder of the easement. So far, the Land Trust has uncovered no major problems — unlike some land trusts elsewhere that have found impermissible new buildings or roads. It holds easement defense insurance that will cover up to $500,000 in legal costs if it ever has to go to court.
The Land Trust is always looking for new volunteers. It’s a great opportunity to get out side to see interesting landscapes and agricultural activity. Please contact us if you are interested, or have any questions about conservation easements or the LTEP in general.