As many readers are aware, the Cumberland Valley School District recently announced a plan to take by eminent domain the historic and scenic McCormick Farm in Silver Spring Township. On Monday, April 16, 2018, Natural Lands, which holds a conservation easement on the farm, filed a response that outlines a series of objections to the taking. The response was filed in the Court of Common Pleas of Cumberland County.
Earlier this week, the Cumberland Valley School District issued a document entitled Land Purchase: Key Facts in an effort to clarify its reasons for taking the preserved McCormick Farm and to address what they call “statements of inaccuracy” that have arisen as part of the debate over its action.
Unfortunately, that document includes potentially misleading statements. Natural Lands feels it is important that the residents of the school district have accurate information as they consider the appropriateness of the district’s action.
Natural Lands holds a conservation easement on the 108-acre McCormick Farm. A conservation easement is a means of protecting a piece of land from future development. When a landowner puts a conservation easement on a property, the land is restricted from development in perpetuity.
The “holder” of the development rights, either a qualified non-profit or government agency, is responsible for monitoring the property on an annual basis and ensuring that the restrictions placed on it are followed by the landowner.
Conservation easements are legally binding, enforceable, and recognized in both Pennsylvania and Federal law and policy, whether the easement is held by a government agency or a nonprofit like Natural Lands. There is no difference in enforceability between a conservation easement held by a land trust and an agricultural or conservation easement held by a government agency.
In this instance, the Lee family desires to sell the property, which is their right. That does not in any way impact the enforceability or value of the conservation easement. Properties under conservation easement are sold frequently. Natural Lands holds more than 380 conservation easements throughout Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey. (In fact, we established the first conservation easement in Pennsylvania in the 1960s.) Many eased properties have changed hands since their easements were established, but the easements — and all of their restrictions — always remain in force.
The holder of a conservation easement owns a real interest in the eased property, i.e., the development rights. In the case of McCormick Farm, the landowner holds one interest and Natural Lands the other. Both have value that must be compensated at fair market value if the land is taken via eminent domain. It is not, as the district suggests in its fact sheet, a question of whether “Natural Lands is entitled to compensation.” That is an established matter of law.
The school district has repeatedly noted that the conservation easement on McCormick Farm includes a clause that addresses the potential of a taking by eminent domain.
The reality is that any piece of land can be taken by eminent domain by any entity that has that power. A conservation easement does not prevent this. The clause in question — which is common in conservation easements — is included not to suggest that taking an eased property is acceptable. Rather it is there, as the rest of that clause states, to make it clear that the conservation easement has a value that must be compensated should a taking occur.
To be clear, regardless of any compensation we may be entitled to, Natural Lands remains strongly opposed to the taking. Our mission as a conservation organization is to preserve and nurture nature’s wonders and to create opportunities for joy and discovery in nature.
McCormick Farm is a wonderful example of that mission in action.
The farm serves as a vital agricultural, historic, and scenic gem in the Cumberland Valley. It was preserved by the McCormick family to ensure that it remains so. It is our duty to defend both the farm and the family’s wishes.
Natural Lands has had the good fortune to be involved in open space conservation in the Cumberland County area since the 1980s. More recently, we have had the privilege of working alongside the leaders and residents of Silver Spring Township as they have developed and implemented an open space preservation effort that is a model in the state.
Since the Cumberland Valley School District announced its intention to take historic McCormick Farm by eminent domain, we have been heartened by the community’s response and we are deeply grateful to those who have taken the time to organize and share their objections with the District.
Natural Lands is not unsympathetic to the district’s stated need to expand.
New residents are moving to Cumberland County because of the quality of life it provides, which in turn creates new demands on the school system. No doubt, the county’s scenic beauty and agricultural heritage are one important reason that people are moving into the area. The quality of the schools is likely another.
It would be truly unfortunate to sacrifice one of these important community assets for the sake of another.
Molly Morrison is the president of Natural Lands.