Janesville68.5°

La Prairie family donates easement

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ANN MARIE AMES
December 30, 2008
— No houses, apartment complexes or gas stations allowed.

The only “construction” on this property will be nests built by indigo buntings.


La Prairie Township landowner Jean Kutz and her family have donated a conservation easement for their 168-acre parcel on Lone Lane to the Land Trust Network of Jefferson County.


The land still may be farmed, but the easement prevents future development on the property.


Kutz was inspired to call the network after she read about a 600-acre easement donation in Clinton Township earlier this year.


She hopes other Rock County farm families will look into the program and consider ways to keep farmland from being developed.


“Some of them are afraid to relinquish to a land trust,” Kutz said. “When I read all the literature, I saw you still have control over the farming. It will always be farmland. That’s important.”


The Kutz family rents the land they’ve farmed for 50 years to a producer who grows corn, soybeans and wheat. The fields must be farmed carefully and would not be well suited for development, Kutz said.


“We’re right up on the first ridge off the prairie,” Kutz said. “It’s limestone. It washes very readily.”


To prevent washouts, the rental contract includes a no-till clause, Kutz said. And grass waterways help slow water as it drains from the hills.


Kutz didn’t have to spend any money to donate the easement, and the donation makes for a nice tax break for the family.


But it’s not about the money, she said.


She likes the row of maple trees along Lone Lane. The trees came to Wisconsin from Missouri in an ox cart and are some of the oldest in the state, she said. They make a good home for songbirds such as cardinals and goldfinches.


You can almost set your watch to the pair of indigo buntings that nest in the grapevines in an old wire fence along the tree line, Kutz said.


Kutz and her daughter have joked that Janesville could someday spread out as far as their farm. Now it will have to spread around, Kutz said.


“I was looking at the land and what was best for it,” Kutz said. “We’re only caregivers here. I hope some of these farmers will read this and think, at least, ‘I want to look into it and maybe that will work for me.’”


County keeps talking about farmland preservation

A conservation easement is forever.


So Rock County doesn’t want to rush into things.


An ad hoc committee is pushing forward its discussion on options for a formal program that would limit or prevent development in some parts of the county.


Meanwhile, a nonprofit group, the Land Trust Network of Jefferson County, has tucked more than 820 Rock County acres into conservation easements in the last year. Rock County has no formal means to do so.


In February, the ad hoc group will host an educational session with the Rock County Agri-business Council and the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.


Rock County Board Supervisor Alan Sweeney, a member of the county conservation committee and the ad hoc committee, said it’s important Rock County move quickly but not recklessly.


“We feel we basically have one chance,” Sweeney said. “If this issue is defeated, I don’t think you and I would see it come up again. If it did, unfortunately, it would come up after it’s too late. The sense is not of urgency. It’s a sense of being complete.”


The subject of development rights for months has been a discussion item on the agenda of the agriculture and conservation committee. The discussion got a second wind when the Janesville Sustainability Committee brought farmland preservation to the forefront of the city’s Smart Growth plan conversation.


Sweeney wants to see a program in place that would protect the county’s farmland, but he doesn’t know what it would look like.


A program could make use of a combination of tools, including transfers, sales or donations of development rights, Sweeney said.


In addition to preserving farmland, preventing scattered development could preserve the county’s aesthetics and drinking water, Sweeney said.


CONSERVATION VOCABULARY
No-till: Planting a new crop on top of last year’s without plowing. The practice is meant to prevent erosion.
Transfer of development rights: A developer puts an easement on a property to prevent development. In exchange, the developer gets some extra wiggle room on another property. For example, the developer could build more houses than zoning normally permits.
Purchase of development rights: A trust, a governmental body or other organization manages a contract that limits or prohibits development on a property. The money to buy an easement from the landowner could come from grants, public dollars or contributions.
Donation of development rights: Landowners donate an easement on their property to a trust or other organization. For example, the Land Trust Network of Jefferson County accepts this type of donation from landowners around the state. The network manages the easement, and property owners get a tax break.
—Rock County Board Supervisor Alan Sweeney helped with the definitions.
CONSERVATION EASEMENTS

An easement is a way to convey some land rights to another party. A conservation easement is a voluntary legal agreement between a landowner and a government agency, a non-profit conservation organization or a land trust that permanently limits land use.


The legal document is recorded at the Register of Deeds Office. Land ownership stays with the landowner but easement rights "run with the land," which means the agency retains the easement rights if the landowner sells the land. The new landowner must abide by the easement.


Source: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
LAND TRUST INFORMATION

The Land Trust Network of Jefferson County will help landowners anywhere in Wisconsin protect their property from development.


The network accepts donations of property easements and manages the easements. It also accepts cash donations to keep the program running.


To learn more about easements, visit www.landtrustnetwork.org or contact the trust at LTN, P.O. Box 142, Watertown, WI 53094.
IF YOU GO
What: Workshop to protect working lands
When: 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 4.
Where: Pontiac Convention Center, 2809 Pontiac Drive, Janesville.
To sign up: Call UW Extension Agent Randy Thompson at (608) 757-5696. The fee is $10 per person and includes lunch. Payment is due by Sunday, Jan. 25. Mail payment to: Rock County UW Extension, Rock County Courthouse, Attention: Randy Thompson, 51 S. Main St., Janesville, WI 53547-1234.
Details: The workshop is part of an ongoing conversation to develop a way to protect Rock County farmland from development. Guest speaker is Bob Wagner, senior director for the American Farmland Trust.
To learn more: Call Rock County Board Supervisor Alan Sweeney, a member of the county conservation committee, at (608) 884-4026.

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