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What are conservation easements, and what could they mean for east Summit County?

Land trusts purchase conservation easements by financially compensating the landowner, who forgoes potentially profitably development for conservation instead.
Elena Abrazhevich
Land trusts purchase conservation easements by financially compensating the landowner, who forgoes potentially profitably development for conservation instead.

Summit County says it wants to put all of the Ure Ranch’s 834 acres under conservation easements, once the land is purchased.

Conservation easements are permanent designations for pieces of land that change how land is used.

They prohibit activities that would make the land monetarily valuable, in favor of “conservation values.”

For example, a conservation easement might prevent any future development and instead establish open space. But easements can be written in a variety of ways, so prohibited and allowed uses are different easement to easement.

These legal designations are back in the conversation as the Summit County government looks to purchase the 834-acre Ure Ranch, which straddles state Route 248 west of Kamas.

Lands and Natural Resources Director Jess Kirby said the county wants to put the entire ranch under conservation easements. At the latest open house Feb. 29, she explained what that means for the area.

Conservation easements 101

The problem easements tackle is that conservation is almost always less profitable than developing the property in some way.

“When a piece of land is considered for a conservation easement, there's a process that you go through in determining the valuation of that property,” Kirby told KPCW.

That means estimating the monetary value of things like development or running utilities on the property. The landowner is compensated financially and with tax benefits to forgo those opportunities.

Land trust organizations supply the cash. The major land trusts at work in the Wasatch Back are the Summit Land Conservancy and Utah Open Lands.

They make sure the conservation values are upheld. Relevant examples include maintaining open space, not selling water rights, grazing animals and protecting wildlife.

Conservation easements “run with the land,” which means they don’t end just because there’s a new owner.

“Those values always stay with the property, and the removed values are always removed from the property," Kirby said. "So you can't get the development rights back.”

Trusts continually monitor the lands they conserve in part because they spend large amounts of money on them.

For reference, Summit Land Conservancy’s conservation easement on 185 acres of the Ure Ranch north of 248 cost the organization $6.2 million.

Latest Ure Ranch feedback

After the presentation portion of the open house Feb. 29, there was an engagement activity, with multiple boards around the room. Residents were asked to leave stickers on them to express favor or dissatisfaction.

The main board asked about the overall direction of conservation.

"The majority of stickers were in the 'we don't believe that this is providing conservation on the Ure ranch,'" Kirby said. "And I do attribute that very much to that small piece of development that was represented on that map."

Affordable or attainable housing has been in the conversation for the Ure Ranch as the real estate market becomes pricier on the east side, partly because of its proximity to ski areas. Kirby said the county is hearing "loud and clear" that Kamas Valley residents don't want community housing on the property.

Two things that got two thumbs up from community members Feb. 29 were recreational open space and the use of conservation easements on the ranch.

Feelings on maintaining agriculture and building facilities for ag education, such as a horse arena, were mixed, according to Kirby.

Following the latest open house, She said there will be more opportunities for Kamas Valley residents to say what should happen on the Ure property.

Future events and surveys will be posted on the county's website and social media.

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