Summit Land Conservancy partners with county in effort to preserve more than 4,000 acres of land
The Summit Land Conservancy is in the process of nearly doubling the land it protects, and last Wednesday, the Summit County Council agreed to partner with the nonprofit to help in the effort.
The conservancy is working to secure a conservation easement for the 4,003-acre Wright Ranch, which is two-thirds the size of the rest of the conservancy’s easements put together. A conservation easement extinguishes development rights from a piece of land while allowing the property owner to retain ownership.
Wright Ranch would be the largest parcel the nonprofit has preserved yet, but conservation director and counsel Kate Sattelmeier said the deal isn’t unusually complicated.
“It’s big, that’s why we’re excited about it,” she said in an interview. “It’s a little more expensive but it uses the same funding sources we’ve used before.”
Securing funding is what brought the conservancy in front of the County Council, because for the nonprofit to access a $3.4 million pot of state money, the state requires that a municipality co-hold the easement.
The county unanimously agreed to act as a co-holder for the Wright Ranch, which straddles Interstate 80 between Echo and Emory, as well as two other easements: the 105-acre Sargent property near Coalville and the 103-acre Judd Dairy Farm south of Hoytsville. The Council has not pledged — or been asked for — any money for the projects.
Sattelmeier said the projects are still in the early going.
“These transactions take a couple years,” she said. “They’re quite complicated real estate transactions.”
One way to explain conservation easements, Sattelmeier said, is the landowner is selling their development rights. The families would still be able to use the land for agriculture, but the easements prevent the land from ever being developed for another use.
It’s a way for landowners to access the equity in the land, turning the family farm into cash, without seeing it turned into houses. Often, Summit Land Conservancy Director Cheryl Fox said, farming families pursue a conservation easement when it’s time for one generation to hand off to the next, but the kids might not have the money to buy the land.
That’s where organizations like the Summit Land Conservancy come in. An appraiser visits the land and determines its value based on its “highest, best use,” which is how much it would be worth if it was converted to its highest value — say, 20 homes.
That figure serves as the basis for the easement the conservancy purchases, and Fox said families will often knock down that price.
The Summit Land Conservancy holds 39 conservation easements on 5,900 acres of land. Earlier this year, it secured an easement for the Osguthorpe Farm, a complicated effort that combined public and private funding and a last-minute, $375,000 windfall.
Fox said at the time “we were staring at failure,” but were able to make up the difference with private donations. The transaction also included an $8.8 million federal grant and about $5.5 million from individuals in the community, Fox said.
“It wasn’t our first rodeo, but it was our biggest horse,” she said with a laugh.
Recently, the conservancy has been focusing on areas near the Weber and Provo rivers, Fox said.
“We all benefit by keeping land with (agricultural) use,” Fox said. “The land continues to sequester carbon, (provide) local sources of food, continues to have wildlife habitats. When we decide to build a lovely subdivision, that affects water quality.”
The conservancy is in the process of applying for federal and state grants to pay for the three East Side easements, a competitive process that might take years to play out.
Sattelmeier said she hopes most of the funding for these projects will come from the federal government. For the 4,000-acre Wright Ranch parcel, the feds might kick in as much as 75 percent of the cost, as it sits in an area that’s designated for the protection of the greater sage grouse. That’s more than the 50 percent the U.S. government will kick in for irrigated farmland, for example. Fox said state funds might make up the difference, and if that fails, the conservancy may reach out to private donors.
“We may or may not get the money … and apply in multiple years,” she said. “We don’t give up ‘til the backhoes show up.”
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The Jordanelle Reservoir is at about 67% of its capacity, not the lowest its been but a level that officials say is concerning.