Land Trusts

views updated

Land trusts

A land trust is a private, legally incorporated, nonprofit organization that works with property owners to protect open land through direct, voluntary land transactions. Land trusts come in many varieties, but their intent is consistent. Land trusts are developed for the purpose of holding land against a development plan until the public interest can be ascertained and served. Some land trusts hold land open until public entities can purchase it. Some land trusts purchase land and manage it for the common good. In some cases land trusts buy development rights to preserve the land area for future generations while leaving the current use in the hands of private interests with written documentation as to how the land can be used. This same technique can be used to adjust land use so that some part of a parcel is preserved while another part of the same parcel can be developed, all based on land sensitivity.

There is a hierarchy of land trusts. Some trusts protect areas as small as neighborhoods, forming to address one land use issue after which they disband. More often, land trusts are local in nature but have a global perspective with regard to their goals for future land protection. The big national trusts are names that we all recognize such as the Conservation Fund, The Nature Conservancy , the American Farmland Trust , and the Trust for Public Land . The Land Trust Alliance coordinates the activities of many land trusts. Currently, there are over 1,200 local and regional land trusts in the United States. Some of these trusts form as a direct response to citizen concerns about the loss of open space. Most land trusts evolve out of citizen's concerns over the future of their state, town, and neighborhood. Many are preceded by failures on the part of local governments to respond to stewardship mandates by the voters.

Land trusts work because they are built by concerned citizens and funded by private donations with the express purpose of securing the sustainability of an acceptable quality of life. Also, land trusts are effective because they purchase land (or development rights) from local people for local needs. Transactions are often carried out over a kitchen table with neighbors discussing priorities. In some cases the trust's board of directors might be engaged in helping a citizen to draw up a will leaving farmland or potential recreation land to the community. This home rule concept is the backbone of the land trust movement. Additionally, land trusts gain strength from public/private partnerships that emerge as a result of shared objectives with governmental agencies. If the work of the land trust is successful, part of the outcome is an enhanced ability to cooperate with local government agencies. Agencies learn to trust the land trust staff and begin to rely on the special expertise that grows within a land trust organization. In some cases the land trust gains both opportunities and resources as a result of its partnership with governmental agencies. This public/private partnership benefits citizens as projects come together and land use options are retained for current and future generations.

Flexibility is an important and essential quality of a land trust that enables it to be creative. Land trusts can have revolving accounts, or lines of credit, from banks that allow them to move quickly to acquire land. Compensation to landowners who agree to work with the trust may come in the form of extended land use for the ex-owner, land trades, tax compensation, and other compensation packages. Often some mix of protection and compensation packages will be created that a governmental agency simply does not have the ability to implement. A land trust's flexibility is its most important attribute. Where a land trust can negotiate land acquisition based on a discussion among the board members, a governmental agency would go through months or even years of red tape before an offer to buy land for the public domain could be made. This quality of land trusts is one reason why many governmental agencies have built relationships with land trusts in order to protect land that the agency deems sensitive and important.

There are some limiting factors constraining what land trusts can do. For the more localized trusts, limited volunteer staff and extremely limited budgets cause fund raising to become a time-consuming activity. Staff turnover can be frequent so that a knowledge base is difficult to maintain. In some circumstances influential volunteers can capture a land trust organization and follow their own agenda rather than letting the agenda be set by affected stakeholders.

Training is needed for those committed to working within the legal structure of land trusts. The national Trust for Public Lands has established training opportunities to better prepare local land trust staff for the complex negotiations that are needed to protect public lands. Staff that work with local citizenry to protect local needs must be aware of the costs and benefits of land preservation mechanisms. Lease purchase agreements, limited partnerships, and fee simple transactions all require knowledge of real estate law. Operating within enterprise zones and working with economic development corporations requires knowledge of state and federal programs that provide money for projects on the urban fringe. In some cases urban renewal work reveals open space within the urban core that can be preserved for community gardens or parks if that land can be secured using HUD funds or other government financing mechanisms. A relatively new source of funding for land acquisition is mitigation funds. These funds are usually generated as a result of settlements with industry or governmental agencies as compensation for negative land impacts. Distinguishing among financing mechanisms requires specialized knowledge that land trust staff need to have available within their ranks in order to move quickly to preserve open space and enhance the quality of life for urban dwellers. On the other hand some land trusts in rural areas are interested in conserving farmlands using preserves that allow farmers to continue to farm while protecting the rural character of the countryside. Like their urban counterparts, these farmland preserve programs are complex, and if they are to be effective the trust needs to employ its solid knowledge of economic trends and resources.

The work that land trusts do is varied. In some cases a land trust incorporates as a result of a local threat, such as a pipeline or railway coming through an area. In some cases a trust forms to counter an undesirable land use such as a landfill or a low-level radioactive waste storage facility. In other instances, a land trust comes together to take advantage of a unique opportunity, such as a family wanting to sell some pristine forest close to town or an industry deciding to relocate leaving a lovely waterfront location with promise as a riverfront recreation area. It is rare that a land trust forms without a focused need. However, after the initial project is completed, its success breeds self-confidence in those who worked on the project and new opportunities or challenges may sustain the goals of the fledgling organization.

There are many examples of land trusts and the few highlighted here may help to enhance understanding of the value of land trust activities and to offer guidance to local groups wanting to preserve land. One outstanding example of land trust activity is the Rails to Trails program in Michigan. Under this program, abandoned railroad right of ways are preserved to create green belts for recreation use through agreements with the railroad companies. The Trust for Public Lands (TPL) has assisted many local land trusts to implement a wide variety of land acquisition projects. One such complex agreement took place in Tucson, Arizona. In this case, the Tucson city government wanted to acquire seven parcels of land that totaled 40 acres (164 ha). For financial reasons the city was not able to acquire the land. At that point the Trust for Public Land was asked to become a private nonprofit partner and to work with the city to acquire the land. TPL used its creative expertise to help each of the landowners make mutually beneficial arrangements with the city so that a large urban park could become a reality. In some cases the TPL offered a life tenancy to the current owners in exchange for a reduced land price. In another case they offered a five-year tenancy and a job as caretaker, in exchange for a reduced purchase price. As the community worked on the future of the park, another landowner who owned a contiguous parcel stepped forward with an offer to sell. Each of these transactions was successful because the land trust was flexible, considerate of the land owners and up front about the goals of their work, and responsive to their public partner, the city government.

Our current land trust effort in the United States has affected the way we protect our sensitive lands, reclaim damaged lands, and respond to local needs. Land trusts conserve land, guide future planning, educate local citizens and government agencies to a new way of doing business, and do it all with a minimum amount of confrontation and legal interaction. These private, non-profit organizations have stepped in and filled a niche in the environmental conservation movement started in the 1970s and have gotten results through a system of cooperative and well-informed action.

[Cynthia Fridgen ]



Diamond, H. L., and P. F. Noonan. Land Use in America: The Report of the Sustainable Use of Land Project. Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, Washington, DC: Island Press, 1996.

Endicott, E., ed. Land Conservation Through Public/Private Partnerships. Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, Washington DC: Island Press, 1993.

Platt, R. H. Land Use and Society: Geography, Law, and Public Policy. Washington DC: Island Press, 1996.


Land Trust Alliance. 2002 [June 20, 2002]. <>.

Trust for Public Land. 2002 [June 20, 2002]. <>.