This Land is Our Land
August 2, 2016
By Melinda Cheel
When a group of citizens in Hartland, Vermont, banded together in the mid-1970s to protect their community from unplanned growth, they had one goal: Pass a local zoning initiative to protect the farms and forestland along the Ottauquechee River. The initiative was defeated.
The setback was temporary. Regional planning commission director Rick Carbin, one of the activists, had recently learned about land trusts, a movement then in its infancy. He researched how to start one, and in 1977 formed the all-volunteer Ottauquechee Regional Land Trust to protect the watershed.
Ten years later, the organization became the Vermont Land Trust (VLT). It has grown rapidly—now employing 47 people at five regional offices, and conserving more than half a million acres in Vermont. VLT is also one of the first trusts in the country to conserve operating farms—protecting upwards of 900 farms and agricultural parcels so far.
“Vermont Land Trust is one of the oldest and largest land trusts in the country,” says Kate Danaher, Senior Manager, Social Enterprise Lending and Integrated Capital at RSF. “One of the things we found most attractive is how they’ve pioneered a lot of tools to ensure agricultural landscapes are managed in a sustainable way.”
Inspiration: Love of the Land
Vermont residents love their land. Many have discovered the state’s beauty at summer camp or on a ski hill or dairy farm. VLT is trying to preserve these natural riches by working with landowners, community groups, and state agencies to save the farmland, forests, recreational sites, and wildlife habitat that embody the state’s rural character. VLT usually accomplishes this by purchasing conservation easements that restrict development.
“We’re helping communities perpetuate a set of values that is centuries-old,” says VLT president Gil Livingston. “But Vermont is not static; it’s evolving like everywhere else.”
Innovation: Saving Land, Preserving Livelihoods for Diverse Farmers
VLT’s mission, says Livingston, is as much about connecting communities to the land and supporting the economy as it is about preserving land itself.
One of the best examples is VLT’s Farmland Access Program, created in 2004 to provide new farmers—many of them otherwise priced out of the market—with opportunities to purchase or lease affordable land. Preserving these lands is a particularly pressing need now, as many farmers are aging and putting their land up for sale. VLT uses a variety of methods to match beginning farmers with land for sale, including conservation easements with an “affordability” provision that sets the land’s purchase price at farm production value.
The easements also protect the plot from becoming a sprawling housing development.
VLT has taken the innovative approach of hiring an ecologist to review every project, looking for natural communities, rare plants and wetlands that may be threatened. It then writes protections for them into the conservation easements, often including a buffer area for waterways that prohibits farm production within 50 feet of a river, which helps protect water quality and natural habitats.
One of the farmers the program helped is Bhutanese refugee Chuda Dhaurali, a goat farmer who leases land in Colchester as part of a collaborative between VLT and the Association of Africans Living in Vermont. When Dhaurali resettled in Vermont in 2008, he struggled to find fresh goat meat—a staple of the Bhutanese diet and required for the feasts of Dashara and Diwali. He wanted to raise goats, but buying land would have been prohibitive. Thanks to the VLT leasing arrangement through AALV, he now lives on the farm with his wife and children, and tends a herd of goats.
In 2012, VLT also helped the indigenous Nulhegan Abenaki tribe acquire 65 acres in northeastern Vermont to create the Nulheganaki Tribal Forestland. It is the first time in two centuries that the tribe has had land of its own.
Mission Fit: Sharing an Ethical Framework
VLT approached RSF in 2014 so they could help another community. The Trust had been getting calls from concerned citizens about an iconic 32-acre parcel in Burlington that was being sold to a housing developer. The loss to Burlington would have been enormous: the land includes community gardens, a woodland path, lakeside bluffs and a beach; and it is one of the only green swaths in that part of the city, a low-income neighborhood where many immigrant Africans and eastern Europeans live.
VLT staff members were particularly concerned about the impact that the loss of green space would have on the community, especially its children. (Among the many data points: children who have only minimal contact with nature are more likely to experience depression, cognitive disabilities, obesity and diabetes.)
“My intuition told me that if we could slow the train down a bit, there might be an opportunity to take a fresh look at other uses for the property,” says Livingston.
VLT began negotiations with the city and the developer, who agreed to sell 12 acres for a public park. The $2 million price tag, however, was hefty. A public fund could defray a quarter of the cost, but VLT needed to secure a $1.5 million loan immediately. “Essentially, we needed to buy time to launch a capital campaign,” says Livingston.
VLT approached several lenders. Many were willing to help but required monthly payments that VLT could not meet. So VLT’s Vice President for Enterprise and Finance Nick Richardson, turned to RSF, which provided terms that meshed with fundraising plans: VLT could make interest-only payments each month and repay the principal in a few installments over three years.
“We really liked the flexibility,” says Livingston. “From the outset, we were intrigued by the values that RSF and VLT share: spirit, trust, community and equality. We felt we shared an ethical framework.”
Impact: Everlasting Working Landscapes
In February 2016, the city of Burlington and VLT bought the 12 acres. The new park will be a public space in perpetuity, one more way the land trust is helping to preserve the state’s verdant way of life.
“In Vermont, you can’t separate the people or communities from the landscape in which we live,” says Livingston. “It’s just who we are.”
For RSF, it was a win-win too.
“It’s a very strategic partnership for us because we are really interested in working landscapes,” says Danaher. “With VLT, we hope to find ways to pioneer new types of financing that help to protect these valuable soil, water, and cultural resources.”
Melinda is marketing director for RSF.
Photo credit: (Above) Chuda Dhaurali (L) and Karen Freudenberger (R) of Pine Island Farm with goats. Photo credit to Caleb Kenna/Vermont Land Trust. (Below) Hikers on a trail in Burlington. Photo courtesy of Vermont Land Trust.