UConn study finds resistance to conservation easements

A survey of more than 1,000 landowners in coastal Connecticut found “skeptical attitudes” toward conservation easements, legal agreements that allow land trusts or government agencies to limit uses on private land for conservation purposes.

Marshes help protect coastlines from storms, among other benefits, according to the study. Future sea-level rise will push the boundaries of some tidal marshes in Connecticut inland, the report by University of Connecticut and Virginia Tech researchers said, in many cases onto private property.

Conservation groups and governmental organizations often rely on easements to help protect against private development that could prevent the movement of those marshes inland, the researchers found, but many landowners are resistant to entering such agreements.

Published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week, the survey included the opinions of landowners in coastal Connecticut whose property is projected to become tidal marsh by 2100 due to the anticipated rise of ocean levels.

Allowing marshes to move inland is an important way to preserve habitats for endangered species and protect coastlines from the damaging effects of storm tides, which are becoming "more frequent and extreme" as sea levels rise, the researchers said.

The success of marsh preservation efforts depends on the landowners’ decision either to build structures like seawalls to maintain the current shoreline or allow the marshes to migrate farther onto their properties, according to the study by UConn's Christopher Field and Chris Elphick and Virginia Tech's Ashley Dayer.

The study was funded by Connecticut Sea Grant, UConn and the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

Survey subjects were presented with four options that conservation groups can use to preserve privately owned areas, including property purchases and conservation easements.

The other two options were restrictive covenants — binding agreements against shoreline construction agreed on by neighborhoods — and future interest agreements, in which landowners agree to sell their property to a conservation organization at market value if a flood reduces the property’s value by more than 50 percent.

Most surveyed property owners said they were unlikely to choose easements, with only 6.9 percent of subjects saying they would be likely or strongly likely to participate in an easement agreement in the next 10 years.

They said they had concerns about the fairness of financial incentives they would be offered in exchange for keeping their land undeveloped, and worry that the organizations offering the easements “might not act fairly or transparently in their efforts to encourage tidal marsh migration.”

The National Conservation Easement Database has logged more than 130,000 easements nationwide. The Nature Conservancy, the state Department of Energy and Environment Protection, the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Avalonia Land Conservancy and the Lyme Land Conservation Trust hold easements locally on properties along the Long Island Sound and the Connecticut River.

Juliana Barrett, a coastal habitat specialist with Connecticut Sea Grant, said she often hears from homeowners interested in cooperating with conservation efforts by signing an easement, though she said that those homeowners might be a self-selecting group.

“The ones that contacting me are looking for information about how better to manage the natural resources that might be on their property,” she said.

Other homeowners could be harder to convince, she said, and studies like the one published this week can help conservation organizations know how best to educate and convince homeowners whom they want to relinquish some of their property to marshland.

“I think it's going to be a slow process,” Barrett said. “If someone comes along and says, ‘you’re going to lose half your backyard to marsh migration' ... it’s really (about) providing info to people on the importance of the salt marshes.”

“Presenting it as an opportunity to learn and opportunity maybe for their property to be part of something bigger over time,” she added.

The surveyed landowners said they would be open to other options for conservation, with 8.2 percent saying they would be most likely to agree to a restrictive covenant among the four options and 27 percent saying they would be most likely to choose a future interest agreement.

m.shanahan@theday.com

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