Since its inception in 1999, The Land Trust for Tennessee has been working with property owners throughout the state to protect their land from future development.
More than 118,000 acres have been protected, mostly through the use of conservation easements, which are legal agreements entered into between property owners and the Land Trust that limit, in perpetuity, the amount and type of alterations that can be made to those owners’ lands.
While for some people the idea of a land trust conjures in the mind visions of endless undisturbed wilderness out in the hinterlands somewhere, in fact the Land Trust for Tennessee conserves pieces of land of all different shapes and sizes in all different parts of the state.
In 2016, alone, the Land Trust undertook 36 projects totaling over 18,400 acres of land, according to the group’s most current impact report. Some of those projects were on the larger side, hundreds of acres each, while others consisted of just a few acres at a time.
Despite their relatively miniscule size, however, some of those smaller properties are special points of pride for the Land Trust and central to the organization’s mission. Several such projects were carried out in Williamson County last year.
“This [past] year in Williamson County we protected some smaller parcels, which is important because there’s still great conservation value on small parcels in areas where there is significant development pressure,” Liz McLaurin, the president and CEO of The Land Trust for Tennessee, said. “And as you know Williamson County is one of the fastest growing counties in population in the state. So it’s a very important focal area for us.”
One piece of land in the area that received the Land Trust’s protection last year is notable for the well-known structure on its premises. The Knox-Crockett House sits on a 2.3-acre parcel of land off of Wikle Road East in Brentwood that was placed under the safeguard of the Land Trust in 2016. The fact that the Knox-Crockett House is listed on the National Register of Historic Places could make some people believe that it was safe from future development, but that is not the case, McLaurin said. Nevertheless, the historic nature of the property did make its conservation especially desirable for the Land Trust.
“We value properties with a history,” McLaurin said. “That is actually a conservation value for us. Historic context is a conservation value. And we’re one of the few land trusts in the country, if not the only one, with the word historic in our mission statement.”
Another historic property, on the edge of Williamson and Davidson counties, that was protected in 2016 is Tenebo, the home of Kem and Marilyn Hinton. The Hintons donated a conservation easement for the land, McLaurin said, protecting it and the historic cemetery located therein. The easement covers 39 acres of land. Again, not a huge amount by Land Trust standards, but noteworthy due to the high rate of development in the surrounding area and the historical value of the property.
“In highly developable areas the more concentration of conservation you have the better,” McLaurin said.
McLaurin refers to Williamson County as the Land Trust’s “home sweet home,” both because the organization’s first easements were located in Leiper’s Fork and because Williamson County contains the highest concentration of Land Trust projects in the state, she said.
Even when they’re clustered together in a place like Williamson County, however, not all easements are created alike, and the customization of easements in relation to the particular needs and wishes of donors is an integral part of what the Land Trust does. Over the years, many property owners have come to forge close relationships with the Land Trust workers who help them work out the terms of their conservation easements.
“Our staff is an interesting group of people in that they’re transactional and relational,” McLaurin said. “They really get to know these landowners. They become part of the family.”
To ensure that the terms of conservation easements are being adhered to, Land Trust workers visit protected properties each year. Luckily, instances of easement violations have been rare, McLaurin said, but in the event inspectors do find development that breaches the legal agreement between the Land Trust and a property owner, the Land Trust is obliged to take legal action.
There are a variety of reasons that landowners may decide to donate easements to the Land Trust. An easement can lower the value of a property for the purposes of estate tax calculation, for instance, so some donors may enter into such agreements to save money down the road.
McLaurin, however, does not believe that is the reason most of The Land Trust for Tennessee’s partners have granted easements to the organization.
“Really the people we work with aren’t doing it for that generally,” she said. “They’re doing it because their heart is in it. They love their land and they want to limit development.”
An easement, after all, does not mean that a person has to totally give up all rights to their land.
“They can continue to farm the land, hunt on the land, fish on the land, ride horses on the land. In some cases, they can even build additional residences on the land,” McLaurin said.
They can also pass on their land to future generations, although those future generations, too, will be bound by the terms of the easement. The Land Trust’s work is never done.
“We visit the property every year, and our promise is to protect that land in perpetuity,” McLaurin said. “So, it’s actually sort of a serious thing. It’s not for 10 years or 50 years. It’s for forever.”
To learn more about The Land Trust for Tennessee, visit the group’s website. There you can find information about entering into an easement with the organization, as well as listings for special public events at the Land Trust’s Glen Leven Farm in Nashville, “a historic, urban, working farm used as a recreational and educational resource for the community.”