Land watchdog eyes Aspen office
August 9, 2008
ASPEN ” Cindy Farny-Mallette’s father was the first person in Colorado to place a Nature Conservancy conservation easement on his property, just outside of Telluride, she says. But after the property was sold, Farny-Mallette realized that the land wasn’t as protected as her father had thought it had been.
Because the outdated agreement never mentioned a building envelope, the new owner has the power to tear down the existing house and build a new one somewhere else on the property ” requiring an extension of all the roads and utilities. And according to Farny-Mallette, the new owner plans to do just that.
“I think it was sort of ignorance on our part that we didn’t know the easement needed to be updated,” she said.
The Nature Conservancy has told her it has no legal way to uphold the “intent” of an easement. And an environmental lawyer told her he’d take the case ” for $385 an hour.
But then Aspen resident Connie Harvey suggested Farny-Mallette call a very small nonprofit called Defense of Place, which serves as a watchdog for public land and conservation easements in jeopardy. The San Francisco-based agency has been helping Farny-Mallette write letters and advising her, she said. And while she acknowledges that the campaign has been less successful than she hoped (Defense of Place lists it as a success, though Farny-Mallette believes the project is still going forward) she’s glad to know there is a watchdog to help out in situations like hers. Unfortunately, she says, there are always lawyers to challenge the best-laid plans.
“OK, so ours is a problem of building envelopes ” but 40 or 50 years from now, there will be something that somebody wants to change,” she said.
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Now Defense of Place, a six-year old nonprofit, plans a wholesale relocation to Aspen ” maybe. First, founder Huey Johnson needs to find a new office, executive director, board and two or three staff members. He plans to help out with the nonprofit for a year, then “turn it over to the citizens of Aspen,” he said, much like he did with the Grand Canyon Trust.
At present, the organization has an annual budget of between $400,000- $500,000, according to Johnson. He generates income primarily from donations and grants, he said, explaining that he has built many relationships with patrons and foundations in his years running environmental nonprofits.
In an open letter to the citizens of Aspen, published as an advertisement in the August 3 edition of The Aspen Times Weekly, Johnson solicited interested citizens.
“I have chosen to address Aspen because its residents are unusually well-informed, influential, and live part of the time in diverse locations of the nation and world,” he wrote. “Further, you have a love of wild natural beauty or you wouldn’t be here.”
Connie Harvey, named in the advertisement as a local resident and friend of the organization, said she has warned him that there are already many nonprofits in Aspen and that the cost of living is high. But he very much wants to have the organization headquartered here, she said.
Speaking from his San Francisco office, Johnson said he has always intended to move the nonprofit, an offshoot of his Resource Renewal Institute, to Aspen. Many years ago, when he was the western director of The Nature Conservancy, he traveled to Aspen for work and skiing and was struck by its environmental ethic.
He remembers environmentalists gathering at “Mrs. Paepke’s pond” (likely Hallam Lake, donated by the Paepkes to create the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies). He also remembers architect Fritz Benedict building a house with a sod roof. And in general, he remembers a group of people who had made or inherited enough money that they could almost live an entirely philosophical life, he said.
“I was impressed that Aspen had the seed of being a very powerful place for the environment,” he explained.
But in the intervening years, Johnson never managed to make his way back to Aspen for any length of time ” he was too busy founding approximately ten environmental nonprofits, serving as secretary of resources for the State of California, and receiving awards ranging from the United Nations Sasakawa Environment Prize to the Frederick Law Olmsted Award.
In 1972, he helped found a watchdog nonprofit in Nairobi for the United Nations Environmental Programs, now known as the Environmental Liason Centre International. Later, he tired of traveling to Nairobi for the board meetings and convinced a young African environmentalist he met at a cocktail party to go in his stead. The woman, Wangari Mathai, later won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work creating Africa’s greenbelt movement-and Johnson eventually founded the international arm of her organization, Green Belt Movement International. The program promotes citizen-based tree planting worldwide and works to break the cycle of poverty and environmental degradation.
Also in 1972, he co-founded the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit land acquisition corporation that is now the fifth largest environmental nonprofit in the United States. He served as its president for six years.
From 1978 until 1982, he was secretary of resources for the State of California under the famously liberal Jerry Brown. For his efforts to preserve and protect California’s natural resources, he received the President’s Award for Sustainable Development.
In 1985, Johnson founded the Resource Renewal Institute (RRI), to catalyze the development of green plans nationally and internationally. RRI is an umbrella organization for his other programs: Water Heritage Trust, the Public Trust Alliance, Californians for Western Wilderness and Defense of Place.
And somewhere along the way, he also found time to found the Grand Canyon Trust and the Aldo Leopold Society.
Johnson said that when he directed the western arm of The Nature Conservancy, he always promised to preserve land to his last breath and last dollar.
But sure enough, he said, he received a call one day from someone telling him that the Los Altos City Council was planning to sell off public land given to them through The Nature Conservancy, when he was working there.
He promptly started a publicity campaign, writing columns in the paper and helping a group of schoolchildren write a “save the park” newspaper, which they sold door-to-door for 50 cents.
Eventually, he said, the city held a recall election for several of the councilmembers.
“They will never, ever tamper with that park again,” he predicted.
At present, he said, the nonprofit is working hard to preserve a ranch in Wyoming where a new owner was recently able to purchase the conservation easement back from the county for $50. The story was recently featured on National Public Radio.
Martha Cochran, executive director of the Aspen Valley Land Trust, said that while the Roaring Fork Valley has a very strong local land conservation program, she can see that there are areas which may not.
She acknowledged that it is “very possible” that land given for parks or open space could later be sold for money in parts of the country. Land grantors, she said, need to be very clear about restrictions when they donate. (In Pitkin County, the sale of open space has to go to a public vote.)
On the topic of conservation easements, she said enforcement ” and the time and money it takes ” has been a hot topic recently among the local land trust community.
In some cases, she said, a small land trust may not have the money to defend or monitor the land. In other cases, a municipality who holds the easement may have no idea how to enforce it. In still other cases, an easement holder could go under.
That’s one reason AVLT shares most of its easements with Pitkin County, she said ” in the hopes that two entities are stronger than one.
As the oldest land trust in Colorado, she suspects AVLT may also have outdated easements, she said. But she doesn’t think they have any that are unenforceable ” just some that could be stronger.
When the original donor still holds the property, she said, the trust will suggest the easement agreement be updated. Otherwise, updating can really only be done when the landholder seeks an amendment to the agreement, according to Cochran.
But is there a need for a national watchdog?
“I don’t think it’s a bad idea,” said Cochran. “I just never thought of it.”