On a rainy Saturday morning in the summer of 1986, a small group of people met at Sally Begley’s house on Yale Hill to discuss the preservation of open space in Stockbridge, MA. Present at the meeting was George Wislocki, president of the Berkshire Natural Resources Council (BNRC), who urged the group to establish a land trust – an organization that would identify and preserve the most significant natural resources of the town. A little over a year later, in December of 1987, the Stockbridge Land Trust came into being. The original board of trustees of the Land Trust included many civic leaders; Judy Spencer was the first president and Sally Begley was secretary (and continues to serve on the board). At the end of this year, the Land Trust will celebrate its 25th anniversary
Over the past 25 years, the Land Trust has used a number of methods to carry out its mission of preservation. Its preferred method is the acquisition of a conservation restriction (CR) on privately owned land that has been identified as environmentally significant. The Land Trust informs the owners of this type of property of the tax benefits to be obtained if the owner grants a CR to the Land Trust. The CR limits development of the land and therefore reduces the value of the land. However, the owner is entitled to a federal charitable contribution tax deduction in the amount of the reduction in value brought about by the granting of the CR to the Land Trust, a charitable corporation under federal tax law. In addition, the reduction of the owner’s property value (in granting the CR) reduces the owner’s local, real property tax liability.
In seeking and obtaining CRs on environmentally significant, privately owned land, the Land Trust has been greatly assisted by the expert staff of the BNRC. With their assistance, the Land Trust has obtained CRs on land off Rattlesnake Mountain Road in Interlaken, MA (off Hill Road and adjacent to the Congregational Church), and off of Route 7 (north of the town center). All of the CRs are recorded in the Registry of Deeds and thus limits development by future owners of the property.
Sometimes the Land Trust has identified environmentally significant property where the owner is not interested in granting a CR but wishes to sell the property. In these situations, the Land Trust may ask the owner to convey the property to the Land Trust for less than its full market value. Such a transaction provides the owner with direct compensation (in the amount of the agreed upon purchase price) and also entitles the owner to a charitable contribution federal tax deduction in the amount of the difference between the full market value and the agreed upon purchase price.
If a property owner is unwilling to sell property for less than its full market value, the Land Trust must address some difficult questions. Is the property so environmentally significant that it is worth paying full market value in order to prevent development? If so, what is the likelihood that the Land Trust can raise the necessary funds? Thanks to generous contributions from our members in response to the Land Trust’s annual appeal, the Land Trust has a limited “war chest” that can be used to purchase properties. In recent years, the Land Trust’s efforts have been supported by the Laurel Hill Association. Together the Land Trust and the Laurel Hill Association have purchased two environmentally important properties – the American Chestnut Preserve site located on Route 7 – south of the town center – and the 57-acre Four Corners property at the intersection of Routes 102 and 183. In both circumstances, the sites, once purchased, have been transferred, subject to appropriate conservation restrictions. The entire Route 7 site and approximately 49 acres of the Four Corners property are now owned by the Laurel Hill Association and are open to the public. These important properties are forever protected against future development.
The Land Trust has been indirectly involved in other conservation activities. The Land Trust supported the environmentally sensitive development of the Pine Woods affordable housing community on Route 102 by obtaining conservation restrictions on the portions of the Pine Woods property that abut the Larrywaug Brook and its adjacent wetlands. Through the generosity of the Stokes family, the Land Trust and BNRC received a CR on a substantial property overlooking the Stockbridge Bowl. Working with BNRC and the state Fish and Wildlife Commission, the Land Trust assisted in the purchase of property abutting Lake Agawam and the Route 7 gateway to Stockbridge. The Land Trust supported the designation of the Kampoosa Bog as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern, a designation that prevents development that would endanger the unique environmental features of the Bog. The Land Trust also worked with the congregants of the Glendale Chapel in the sale of the building subject to a CR that prohibits changes to the façade of the historic chapel building.
The Land Trust continues to be vigilant in identifying, and seeking to protect, the natural resources of Stockbridge. Its past efforts, and its future efforts, depend upon the generous support of those who value the preservation of those resources.