Conservancy group talks ways it preserves land
Tax benefits available for preserving land with Conservancy for Charles County
The mission of the Conservancy for Charles County can perhaps best be summarized by a quote from American ecologist Aldo Leopold, who said, “Conservation will ultimately boil down to rewarding the private landowner who conserves the public interest.”
“What Leopold meant was there’s no way that government can buy up all the land that we need to keep in a natural state or as an open space,” explained Walter H. “Hal” Delaplane, president of the conservancy.
Instead, nonprofit organizations like the Conservancy for Charles County work with local landowners to make it possible for the owners themselves to preserve the land. This is done using an ingenious type of contract called a conservation easement.
“Conservation easements provide landowners with significant tax benefits for voluntarily giving up some or all of the development rights to their land,” Delaplane said. “The landowner voluntarily contracts with a qualified private land conservation organization, like the Conservancy for Charles County, to hold the easement in perpetuity.”
In exchange for agreeing to restrict or prevent development on the land, the owner receives either financial compensation or, in the case of the Conservancy for Charles County, a variety of state and local tax benefits.
Currently, there are more than 1,700 private land conservation organizations, also commonly called land trusts, active in the United States. Some are responsible for maintaining easements on a single property. Others, like the Conservancy for Charles County, are responsible for all easements in a county. Others are regional. In Minnesota, one land trust safeguards easements throughout the entire state.
Regardless of the size of the organization, the process of acquiring a conservation easement is pretty much the same. When a landowner contacts the conservancy, Delaplane or another representative of the organization visits the land to determine whether it meets any of several criteria. If it does, the conservancy prepares an evaluation and provides the landowner with information on how to apply for the easement. A deed is then drafted and, when approved by the conservancy’s board, signed and filed with the county’s land records office.
Criteria include: Does the land protect a natural habitat or ecosystem? Does it preserve an open space for public enjoyment or for the public benefit? Is the land historically significant? Can it be used for public recreation or education? If it meets one or more of these criteria, it may be eligible for a conservation easement.
It’s a complicated process, and what makes it even more challenging is that it takes place largely out of the view of the public. Unlike other nature organizations, the conservancy doesn’t invite people to take nature hikes, clean up pollution or count fish. “The land is privately owned and not open for public access,” Delaplane said. “We can’t take people on tours and let them look at properties.”
As a result, it’s hard to compete for the public’s attention. “We have over 400 nonprofits in Charles County, and they’re all engaged in important and worthwhile things,” Delaplane said. “Trying to raise awareness of the need for our mission can be a tough sell.”
The all-volunteer Conservancy for Charles County is a membership organization funded by dues, donations, state grants and a smattering of fundraising. That makes it hard too, and Delaplane is always looking for skilled and knowledgeable volunteers to help.
In his own case, Delaplane volunteered because of his background as an oceanographer for the Navy. He spent decades exploring ecosystems in the Arctic and all along the coastline of the United States before becoming, as he put it, “a federal scientist and a bureaucrat.” When he was invited to join the board of the conservancy, he didn’t hesitate.
“The whole idea of going out on properties out in the swamps of Southern Maryland really appealed to me,” he said. “The fun part was going out on these site visits. Of course, I should have had enough experience to know that 80 to 90 percent of the work was going to be paperwork,” he added with a wry chuckle.
Delaplane’s friend Lloyd Bowling, a retired professor of audiology at Georgetown University and a member of the conservancy’s board, put his 30-acre property in Allens Fresh into a conservation easement to preserve its history for future generations. The property is the last parcel of what had been a 1,600-acre “manor grant” deeded to wealthy English physician Thomas Gerard by King Charles I in 1651. The manor house on the property dates from the early 1700s, when the land was owned by Charles Carroll of Carrollton, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.
Growing up on a farm adjacent to the property, Bowling watched as parcels of the property were gradually sold off to be turned into farms or other developments. He developed an attachment to the rundown manor house, and eventually inherited the property from his father, who purchased it from Bowling’s great aunt and uncle.
“When I got [the property], I knew I didn’t want anything else built around it,” Bowling recalled. “I wanted to save this, and that’s why I put in a conservation easement.” Bowling, 87, said that his two sons will have the option to buy the property when he passes away. “If they don’t want it, I told them to sell it to somebody who would love it and care for it.”
Bowling said that conservation easements are a great way for families to pass land from generation to generation while also efficiently managing a finite resource.
“As my grandfather would tell me, ‘Buy as much land as you can because, they’re not making it anymore,’” Bowling said.
Walter H. “Hal” Delaplane, president of the Conservancy of Charles County, retired from a career as an oceanographer for the Navy before joining the conservancy.
Lloyd Bowling, a retired professor of audiology at Georgetown University, used a conservation easement to preserve a manor house and surrounding land that had once been owned by Charles Carroll, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.
Allens Fresh resident Lloyd Bowling inherited 30 acres of historic land from his father, which he later donated to the Conservancy of Charles County as a conservation easement to ensure it is preserved in its natural state in perpetuity.
Allens Fresh resident Lloyd Bowling donated a conservation easement to the Conservancy of Charles County to preserve 30 acres of land originally deeded to English settler Thomas Gerard by King Charles I in 1651.
A Conservancy for Charles County volunteer monitors a conservation easement consisting of a high-quality stream in an upland forest.