Agricultural Lands Preservation at POST
By Beth Wylie
B.A. Archeology, 2010 and M.S. Earth Systems, 2011
Have you ever considered how Brussels sprouts grow? Since I have never even tasted one, I certainly had not thought about it either. Two weeks ago I had the opportunity to see them up close and personal when I took a trip to POST’s Johnston Ranch near Half Moon Bay. Turns out, Brussels sprouts are quite strange looking plants that grow the cabbage-like sprouts on the stem! When I got tired of looking at the Brussels sprouts, I had the pleasure of observing the rolling grasslands and fog soaked fields of Johnston Ranch, which is one of only about two dozen properties POST owns in fee. It is also one of the few POST properties leased for row crop agriculture. Due to pressures from the estate market on the Peninsula, ensuring that places like Johnston Ranch continue to preserve active agriculture and stay affordable is a major challenge for POST. Fortunately, there are various options for addressing these issues, and researching these options was my task this summer.
As part of this project, I spoke with 12 organizations, ranging in geographical influence from Marin County in Northern California to Vermont. There seemed to be a consensus that three methods had the potential to answer the questions of affordability and continuation of agriculture. They are as follows:
- Option to purchase at agricultural value (OPAV)
- Affirmative agricultural easements
- Ground leases
An OPAV is a provision that can be added to a conservation easement. If the landowner chooses to sell the property, an OPAV allows the easement holder (often a land trust) to purchase the land at its agricultural value if the buyer is not a farmer. Because the agricultural value is often significantly lower than the market value, this mechanism not only maintains active agriculture but also keeps farmland affordable.
Affirmative agricultural easements include language that mandates the continuation of productive agriculture. This is in opposition to standard, prohibitive easement language, which might state, for example, that the landowner shall not build a house larger than 2500 square feet. While affirmative language is unusual and potentially open to challenge, it has been extensively used on the East Coast to preserve farmland.
Finally, some organizations, particularly community land trusts, use ground leases. In these leases, the land trust owns the land while the lessee owns the buildings on the land. This allows the lessee to build equity and own collateral for lending without burdening himself with a large mortgage.
In completing this research, I was able to provide POST with information that will help them determine whether to change their approach to agricultural preservation. However, I also learned a huge amount from POST! In October, I will head up to the Last Frontier to begin work for the Southeast Alaska Land Trust. Thanks to POST, I feel I will arrive with a much clearer understanding of the functions and day-to-day work of a land trust. Further, the many opportunities I had at POST, including investigating water rights, making GIS maps and doing research, have helped me begin to sketch the outlines of my specific interests in the conservation world. More importantly, I learned I truly do enjoy the work of a land trust. For instance, visiting a beautiful place like Johnston Ranch for work is an opportunity very few other careers offer. In addition, protecting places that support open space, endangered species, and human use is a unique, rewarding aspect of the land trust model. Though it will be tough to leave the warmth of Palo Alto, I am excited to begin a new adventure in Juneau, and I am so thankful to POST and the Bill Lane Center for starting me off on the right foot!
Read more at the Out West Blog for Summer Interns »