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Beginner's Guide to Conservation Easements

One of the less talked about aspects of our job at Cuyahoga Soil & Water Conservation District is that we hold a number of conservation easements. Subsequently, we monitor these easements on an annual basis.

To understand what we are monitoring for and what this job entails, we must first understand what a conservation easement is. Conservationeasement.us defines a conservation easement as, “a voluntary, legal agreement that permanently limits uses of the land in order to protect its conservation values.”

Basically, an easement legally limits what can and cannot happen on a landowner’s property in perpetuity. For our intents and purposes, our conservation easements forbid any kind of urban/suburban encroachment or general management. This encroachment and management is what we look for during inspections.

So, why would any landowner want to give up some legal rights to what they can and cannot do on their own property? There are many reasons, and this is not an exhaustive list. An old-timey/classic reason is that grandparents want to keep the family farm as a farm and prevent the grandkids from selling it after they pass away. Another classic reason is that easements can be used for tax savings. In the suburban setting where some of our easements can be found, easements are a way to ensure some privacy and that an area will not be developed.

When I volunteered to assist with easement inspections, I thought I was signing up for dainty walks in the woods. What I quickly learned was dainty walks were far from reality. Rather with steep ravines, muddy slopes, deeply eroded stream crossings, thick swathes of thorny multi-flora rose, and a distinct lack of trails, these easement inspections can be rough.

My iPad and GPS have died, resulting in getting lost. I’ve rolled my ankle. I’ve bushwhacked through yards and yards of eight foot tall phragmites. I’ve fallen and gotten muddy more times than I can count. Those roses have made their cuts. But, any day in the field is better than a day in the office.

During inspections, I regularly find two broad categories of infractions. The infractions generally are encroachment and landscape dumping. Encroachment simply means that the landowner is putting something unallowable in the easement. “Something” actually means anything in this instance. Benches, fire pits, landscaping features, religious icons, wood piles, and jungle gyms are all very normal encroachments.

I find landscape dumping in all of its gaudy forms as well. This could be a large pile of vegetative debris as pictured above. It could be ubiquitous grass clippings. Old Christmas trees and jack-o-lanterns are ever present, as are indoor houseplants with their containerized and formed root ball still intact.

In the easements, I find the usual suspects when it comes to invasive species. The aforementioned multi-flora rose is everywhere, as evidenced by the scratches on my arms. Phragmites can take over entire hillsides. I used to see Japanese knotweed a little bit, but its explosive growth habit has it growing all over Cuyahoga County these days.

Personally, I live in Lakewood, Ohio. Lakewood is rumored to be the most population dense city between New York and Chicago. Houses are next to houses are next to two-units. The lakeside is full of condos. It literally is impossible to escape from neighbors. I would love to have an easement next to or behind my house that gave me more privacy. For that privacy, I’d gladly give up a little of my own space.

Blog Author: Justin Husher, Natural Resources Conservationist

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