The story of the summer camp called Green River Preserve and its conservation easement actually starts with my father’s service in WWII. Dad fought in the infantry in both Africa and Europe. He was shot at so often, he decided that if he survived the war, he would buy land in the Blue Ridge Mountains where he could fly fish in peace and quiet. It was a good idea, and my family still believes there is nothing more beautiful or peaceful than fly fishing for trout. At camp we call it “aquatic theology.” Dad’s idea also turned out to be a good investment plan. After the war, people flocked to the cities, land values plummeted, and trout streams were cheap. Dad bought 3,400 acres of one of the most beautiful valleys in western North Carolina. Through the valley flowed the Green River, one of the state’s great trout streams. He paid $15 per acre.
My family spent many wonderful days enjoying the property. We fly fished, hiked, camped, and fell in love with the Green River Valley. Our lives and values became intertwined with the land itself. In 1988, I quit my job in the business world and started building my dream, a summer camp for children. The camp was designed to re-create for summer campers the joys my family and I had discovered in the valley. The concept worked, the camp thrived, and today the land and the camp continue to inspire future generations.
But there was a problem. In recent years, according to the tax folks, the land was worth up to $10,000 per acre. That was a big property and estate tax problem. I did not want to sell the land. The land was simply too important to my family, to our camp, and to the values I hold dear. But, the land was almost too valuable to keep as a small, family-run summer camp.
My solution to this dilemma was a conservation easement. The idea of a conservation easement is simple. Imagine a bundle of sticks in which each stick represents a property owner’s right of ownership. One stick represents the right of access; another the right to hike, camp, and fish; still another, the right to maintain existing roads and fields. There are a lot of sticks in the bundle, but the most valuable stick of all is the development stick. The owner of that stick can develop the land by building roads, houses, golf courses, etc. In other words, the development stick is the property owner’s right to cause significant environmental destruction. (If you are an attorney, I apologize for a stick analogy that butchers an elegant legal concept. I simply understand sticks better than law.)
In North Carolina, land owners can sell the development stick to a land conservancy and, in return, get significant tax credits and tax deductions. In cases when the land has great ecological value, the development stick may even be sold for cash.
Selling development rights is a permanent commitment, so it must be carefully done. In my case, I used a local land conservancy group called Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy. They were immensely helpful and professional, and I am happy to say that similar local conservancy groups exist in every state.
It took roughly two years of work to complete the Green River Preserve conservation easement. Approximately 85 percent of the property was permanently protected. The remainder was left out of the easement so that current camp operations could be expanded or moved to another location. The easement reduced the value of the land under easement by roughly 80 percent. Virtually all costs associated with creating the easement were paid by the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy, and my family received hefty tax deductions and credits that can be used for years to come. Furthermore, the State of North Carolina, through its Clean Water Management Trust Fund and other funding sources, paid a limited amount of cash for the easement. I received cash for property that I still control and continue to use for the benefit of Green River campers.
There are many ironies to this story. First, in order to preserve and protect the Green River Preserve, I used a conservation easement to destroy permanently much of the value of my family’s land. In return, of course, I greatly reduced both my property and my estate taxes. Secondly, I received cash for protecting my family’s land from development, something that in my lifetime, I intended to do anyway. The cash received for the easement is now invested so that someday it may substantially offset the reduction in the land value. Best of all, Green River Preserve can go on as if nothing has happened. Campers hike, camp, and fish on the land just as before. The joy of the quiet, peaceful land continues to inspire new generations.
My children now help manage Green River Preserve. My family’s story reminds me of a saying from Chief Seattle: “The river’s murmur is the voice of my father’s father.”
Sandy Schenck is the founder of Green River Preserve. He and his wife, Missy, serve as executive directors of the twenty-five-year-old summer camp located near Brevard, North Carolina.