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In land we trustA Murden Cove parcel is the latest to be preserved by easement.
"Typical of the occasion, the most honored guests didn't hold invitations.As hosts Vince and Kay Mattson and members of the Bainbridge Island Land Trust tilted champagne flutes, a heron sat perched high in a tree overhead, while scores of birds rippled the waters of Murden Cove with a mad flapping.This happens every time we have one of these, said land trust president Steph Miller, of the tendency for wildlife to make an appearance at the dedication of Bainbridge parks and greenways.This occasion, observed on a brisk Sunday afternoon in late November, marked dedication of the Mattsons' property on Murden Cove as private open space protected from future development.Logs and beach grasses define the sandy landscape of the 2-acre spit, which abuts the nearby salmon stream and includes 600 feet of waterfront. The property is ringed by by enormous cedars and firs.The 10 or so acres, including tidelands, have been in Kay Mattson's family for three generations; she and Vince moved there from Olympia in 1977.A retired highway engineer on a fixed income, Vince Mattson concedes that protecting the grounds from future subdivision and development will bring the couple some property tax relief.But as co-founder of the Murden Cove Preservation Association, Mattson has an environmental angle too.We just love this area, he said, and this is one way we can help protect it.This is just so cool, isn't it? said the land trust's Miller, striding the beach. I just love doing this.You have admire Vince and Kay. This property is worth a ton of money, and look what they're doing.Trust workThe Mattson easement is the latest success story for the 12-year-old Bainbridge Island Land Trust.The non-profit organization was formed to preserve open space, greenways and habitat areas around the island, and since then has secured more than two dozen conservation easements that protect nearly 200 acres from future development.Perhaps the most visible example is the Ryherd/Parcheski property, bounded by Highway 305 and Day/Miller Roads. The 20-acre parcel - contiguous with another 7.5 acres also protected by an easement - includes picturesque rolling fields still in cultivation.It gives a sense of peace to everyone who drives past there every day, Miller said.The trust's second effort saw preservation of the Young property, a sandy, 2-acre spit similar to the Mattsons' that puts the point in Battle Point.Other parcels include scenic meadows, second-growth firs and wetlands. Mayor Dwight Sutton and four neighbors banded together to place 10 acres under an easement, to protect a heron nesting area.Typically, the group puts together two or three conservation easements each year. In 2000, that number is at seven - with at least one more expected soon.Miller attributes the group's recent successes to such high-profile work Blakely Harbor Park. Purchase of that 20-acre property by the park district followed more than a year of behind-the-scenes feather-smoothing with Port Blakely Tree Farms, which in the early 1990s proposed an 853-home community and commercial center circling the harbor. The project was abandoned in 1994, in the face of public opposition.Land trust officials subsequently negotiated an option on the property, then led a private fund-raising drive that netted more than $1 million for purchase. The park was dedicated earlier this year.The group did similar work on the Grand Forest and Gazzam Lake Park - between them, 535 acres - both of which were paid for with voter-approved bond issues and are now held by the park district.Anything that enhances open space on the island, we're for, Miller said. We don't care who owns it.Life of easementWhile the big-ticket purchases get the headlines, small victories like the Mattson property are more illustrative of the land trust's principle tool - conservation easements. Under such an easement - entered into voluntarily by a landowner, often of their own initiative - future development rights on a private parcel are snuffed out and other use restrictions established and recorded with the county auditor.While the owner retains title, often with a home somewhere on the grounds, the land trust retains right of access for inspection. Each year, volunteers tour each property to make sure the terms of the easement have not been violated.What we don't want to see is a bunch of stumps with flat tops, Miller said.The result is a growing network of private open space around the island. They aren't parks, because the owners can restrict access; but neither will they see new homes or other development, now or in the future.There's some disagreement over the effect of conservation easements on the value of a given parcel. Typically, Miller said, development rights average $25,000-$35,000 per acre on the island, depending on location. And rendering a vacant lot unbuildable clearly reduces its value.On the other hand, some developers are banking on the idea that estate-sized building lots preserved in perpetuity will fetch a good price on the market.That's the strategy of John Green, who's developing the large-lot Bucklin Hill Woods project south of Hyla School.Having operated on the island since 1993, and with two projects in the Rolling Bay area already under his belt, Green knew the reception that often greets large subdivisions.In fact, the Bucklin Hill property - purchased from the staunchly environmental Hellmuth family - was zoned for 22 homes. Instead, Green opted to reduce that to five lots ranging in size from 6.5 to 17 acres. Each will accommodate one home, set forward off a shared access road. But the balance of the 50 acres - which includes a dramatic wooded gully that falls away behind the homesites, and a trail network - will be restricted from further development under a conservation easement.There's nobody who's not happy about this project - so what's that worth? he said. What's the point of getting everybody upset just to get another five or seven lots out of it?The trails could be dedicated to public use once the lots are sold, Green said, with the agreement of the homeowners association.I'm not worried about them selling, but it takes the right type of person, he said.Agreed Miller: We've seen that conservation easements can enhance the value of properties. (Owners) have their own little preserves, and they kind of like that.There is also a tax benefit to be had, if the owner pursues it. By petitioning the county to have a parcel legally classify as open space, owners can get tax reductions of up to 90 percent.The distinction is important. While development rights, once eliminated, can never be restored, open space designations can be ended. In such a case, a property owner is hit for up to seven years worth of back property taxes, plus interest.The Mattson property is one of was one of eight recently approved for open-space classification.There are some people who may not have a charitable corpuscle in their body, Miller said, but they realize that the tax savings can be significant.The futureThe Bainbridge Island Land Trust now claims 400 island households as members, and would like to double that number. The executive director position will soon become full-time, with part-time staff help and new office space due as the Marge Williams Center is completed on Winslow Way.Miller sees the group's efforts as a race against time and the inevitability of change.You can foresee the time when there just isn't any more land to save on the island, he said. So we have to move while we can.We're not against development, We're just against development everywhere.Mattson, now holder of conservation easement, offered a philosophical view.We're just stewards of this land, Mattson said. As such, we need to take care of it.I think a lot of people who think they're property 'owners' need to reassess that. You can't take it with you. "