85-acre conservation easement in Henefer caps a record year for the Summit Land Conservancy
The Summit Land Conservancy Thursday closed a deal to conserve 85 acres near Henefer, capping a record-setting year the organization’s executive director called “kind of unbelievable.”
Cheryl Fox said the nonprofit closed on seven conservation easements in 2019 — the most ever — protecting about 1,200 acres around the county and increasing the total acreage it has preserved to more than 6,800.
The most recent project, on a portion of the White Farm on the Weber River, joins three other projects in the immediate vicinity, totaling 221 acres.
The year’s most high-profile project was the easement on the 158-acre Osguthorpe Farm near Old Ranch Road that was secured in early spring after a large community fundraising push. The largest easement, which closed last month, was on the 841-acre Wright Land and Livestock ranch near Coalville.
Fox said the list of people interested in a conservation easement on their land is only growing.
“We’ve been seeing increasing interest from landowners for the last few years,” Fox said, adding that the increase may be partly due to residents watching their neighbors successfully complete the process. “(There’s a) stack of landowners who want to do big, landscape-scale, 4,000- or 5,000-acre projects.”
Now the task for Summit Land Conservancy is finding funding sources to make that happen.
A conservation easement is a way for landowners to access the equity in their land and turn the family farm into cash without seeing it turned into houses.
Sometimes landowners donate the easements, but often the nonprofit purchases them with federal and local funds. Fox said the organization relies on crucial support from members and donations from the community.
The easements can be costly, as the transaction essentially buys the development rights of a piece of land, or the difference in value between what it’s worth as farmland and what it would be worth it if was developed.
A third party like the Summit Land Conservancy then holds the easement in perpetuity while allowing the property owner to retain ownership. Landowners can continue to use the land as they have been — as a working farm, for instance — but the land will never be able to be developed into a subdivision.
The Henefer easement is on a portion of the White Farm adjacent to the west bank of the Weber River. The land is leased to a farmer who continues to grow hay and graze about 200 head of cattle, according to a press release. Fox called the land beautiful and said a creek meanders its way through the parcel and into the river.
The 85 acres sit just upstream of three other easements in the area, including the first easement the Summit Land Conservancy purchased in 2009.
Fox said people asked her back then why the nonprofit would secure 44 acres in the middle of Henefer. A decade later, she said, that immediate vicinity has about 221 acres of protected land.
Fox said that concentration is important for river and wildlife health. The nonprofit has been pursuing conservation work in the Weber River corridor in an effort to protect the important source of drinking water for millions of Utahns.
Keeping development away from the river is important to that effort, Fox said.
“Our goal is to keep building and housing back off the river so the river can flood and move, what rivers are supposed to do. That’s why wetland is so ecologically valuable and important,” she said. “The more we can let rivers meander and flood … the better it is for wildlife habitat. Ultimately, it’s (all) human habitat.”
The Henefer transaction used funds allocated by the Eastern Summit County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space Advisory Committee, a board that manages a pot of money that grows every time a developer lot is sold in the Promontory development.
The fund has put millions of dollars toward conservation efforts over the years, Fox said. She added that stipulations on how the money is spent means it can account for, at most, 10 percent of a project’s cost, ensuring that money is leveraged with other sources.
The landowner, Bill White, made a significant contribution, as well, Fox said. He sold the easement according to a land valuation completed a few years ago, leaving the land’s recent increase in value out of the equation.
Fox said the Summit Land Conservancy has big things in store next year and beyond. Along with 20 other local stakeholders, it recently applied for a new type of federal grant that would allow for different forms of land conservation. It also is contemplating establishing a nature preserve, which would necessitate owning land and its attendant costs like maintaining fencing and weed control.
The nonprofit also has an ongoing campaign to raise about $150,000 to complete a transaction that would ensure public access to the Weber River in a park in Oakley. It’s the last step in a process that has already resulted in the successful purchase of a conservation easement for the new Riverbend Park near the Oakley fairgrounds.
Asked to reflect on what’s she’s taken away from 2019, Fox responded with one word: humility.
“We get kind of insular here in Park City, kind of talking to each other,” she said. “When we started getting gifts for Osguthorpe from Tooele, New Harmony, West Jordan — I was astounded. I’m touched and humbled by the idea that people beyond Park City would want to help us save something that’s important to us. And I was just humbled.”
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It was an important decision since the rest of the talks will be heavily influenced by the processing option selected by the Planning Commission on Wednesday.