Not all land trusts are the same

Published 11:31 am Wednesday, May 17, 2023

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Those of us who live in Polk County are blessed when it comes to land preservation. Not only are we living in one of the most beautiful places in the world, surrounded by farms and forests, but we also have two land preservation organizations, plus our Polk Co. Soil and Water Conservation District, dedicated to preserving our farmland and natural resources. 

Someone asked me last week to explain the difference between a standard land trust (a land conservancy) and a community land trust. In some ways, they are the same, but in some ways, the two are very different. 

A typical definition of a land trust or conservancy, according to Google, “is an organization designated to conserve and protect natural resources.” The definition of a community land trust is “a nonprofit corporation that retains ownership of land on behalf of a place-based community while serving as the long-term steward for community gardens, nature parks, public trails, and other community natural assets on behalf of the community”. 

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Whereas land trusts are in the business of saving land and natural resources, traditional land trusts tend to be regional, serving large areas and preserving large parcels of land, community land trusts are more local and tend to preserve smaller parcels of land if doing so is a benefit to the community. Often a community land trust will acquire land within the community to be used for affordable housing, working with local housing assistance agencies that will build the actual housing. One big benefit of this partnership is the fact that the community land trust can lease a home site/lot with a 99-year renewable lease and the homeowner pays property tax on the home itself but not on the land. This practice relieves the homeowner from high property taxes caused by area gentrification. We want people to live close to community services like schools and grocery stores, but that is a bit difficult when the land beneath the ‘affordable’ home is valued at $100,000/acre.

We have two land trusts in our area: Conserving Carolina and Saluda Community Land Trust. Conserving Carolina covers a larger area, and tends to hold conservation easements on larger tracts of land to protect farms, forests, and wildlife habitat. Saluda Community Land Trust (SCLT) concentrates on a much smaller area, with a commitment to improving the quality of life and our natural surroundings, with open public parks and trails. SCLT will hold a conservation easement on a parcel of land as small as ½ acre if that particular piece of land is important to the community. One of SCLT’s goals is for every Saluda resident to be able to walk out their back door to a safe place to sit under a tree and commune with Mother Nature.

Luckily for us all, both of these conservation organizations are able to work together for the benefit of all of us, including the bears and turtles. There are many things that one organization can do that the other cannot, and visa versa. Conserving Carolina has 24 staff members; Saluda Community Land Trust has 2 part-time staff members. Conserving Carolina is able to offer great educational opportunities in our region as well as preserve huge parcels of land by obtaining government funding and generous gifts from its supporters; SCLT concentrates on a smaller area and is able to protect land with conservation easements and provide land open to the public for trails, gardens, and parks.

We are all in this together! These two conservation organizations are very different, but they both have the same goal: to preserve and protect this beautiful land on which we all live, groundhogs included.