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Published: Monday, 9/29/2003

Land trust is striving to contain sprawl

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER
The Black Swamp Conservancy and its leaders including Phil Williams, its vice president; Paul Tait, its president, and Tim Schetter, its executive director, from left, have saved 2,300 acres including land that begins on the other side of the trees behind them. The Black Swamp Conservancy and its leaders including Phil Williams, its vice president; Paul Tait, its president, and Tim Schetter, its executive director, from left, have saved 2,300 acres including land that begins on the other side of the trees behind them.
SIMMONS / BLADE Enlarge

Just to the left of Hood Park at the base of downtown Perrysburg's business district is a stately old brick house where deals are being made to help keep northwest Ohio's urban sprawl problem in check.

It seems fitting that a little-known group called the Black Swamp Conservancy goes quietly about its business as a nonprofit, local land trust there. Perrysburg is one of several northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan cities struggling with the national problem of balancing the cultural needs of historic preservation with the economic incentives of rapid development.

The Black Swamp Conservancy has a long way to go before it's as recognizable as the landmark Commodore Perry statue that shadows its parking lot or has the same clout in dealing with urban sprawl as the Nature Conservancy, a national group with a similar mission.

Yet leaders of the Black Swamp group feel confident it soon will become a big player on the local development scene.

Since 1993, the conservancy has used conservation easements and other legal tools to preserve about 2,300 acres at seven sites in Wood County, six in Seneca County, two in Fulton County, and one each in Sandusky and Ottawa counties.

“We'd like to see 3,000 acres by the end of the year. We think we'll hit it,” said Tim Schetter, executive director, in explaining how land donations can be heavy in the fall as property owners recognize the tax advantages.

The optimism is understandable: The conservancy is having the best year in its decade-old existence, nearly tripling the 865 acres it had been able to dedicate for conservation in its first nine years.

“These past couple of years have been really exciting, because it's all starting to pay off,” said Phil Williams, the group's vice president.

That's largely because of funds made available through the Clean Ohio Fund, a program in which voters authorized the state in November, 2000, to raise $400 million over four years for land reclamation and preservation projects by selling bonds.

Half of the money is dedicated to cleaning up polluted sites. The other half goes to preservation efforts, such as dedicating farmland to conservation through easements. The easements, by law, are set up by a municipality, township, county, or land trust.

Unlike the Nature Conservancy, the Black Swamp Conservancy doesn't own huge chunks of land. It is eyeing its first major purchase in the coming weeks. Most of the local group's work has been in helping rural property owners obtain conservation easements - legal restrictions in which property doesn't change hands but the owner has agreed to surrender development rights.

Commercial and retail development historically follows the outward growth and movement of population in a vicious feeding circle. At the same time as more subdivisions are built in places like Perrysburg, Sylvania, Monclova, Springfield, and Bedford townships, the communities must seek out new development to generate the property tax base needed to finance their municipal operations. .

Many area municipalities, townships, and counties don't have the staffing, time, or expertise to fill out voluminous applications for easements. That's opened up new markets for land trusts such as the conservancy.

The incentive for obtaining an easement can be as simple as a homespun desire to keep land in its current state, regardless which buyers come forth in future generations. Plus, there are tax incentives: Owners can compare the market values of their land with and without the restrictions, then write off the difference as a donation. Or, they can accept compensation for the difference if they agree to sell - rather than donate - the easement.

Easements are used “mainly to restrict commercialization,” said Paul Tait, president of the Black Swamp group. Property owners can still set aside a portion of nearby land to build a house or other light development, he said.

The conservancy apparently has found a niche. Unlike Toledo Area Metroparks and the Nature Conservancy, it does not base decisions on recreation potential or the presence of endangered plants and animals.

Its work ranges from a little plot of land outside its front door to a Seneca County farm that spans more than 500 acres. The parcel near its front door is a prime two-acre lot along the Maumee River owned by former Perrysburg Mayor John Orser. It is used as buffer for Hood Park, to help keep development from encroaching upon the park and its statue.

Terry Seidel, the Nature Conservancy's real estate and land management director, said that valuable two-acre site is precisely the kind of land that can be overlooked when local land trusts aren't around to pick up the slack.

The Nature Conservancy, formed in the 1950s, is one of the nation's oldest and most venerable land trusts. It provided the Black Swamp Conservancy its first conservation easement in 1993, a portion of the 577 Foundation in Perrysburg. The Nature Conservancy had previously held easement rights there, but transferred them to the Black Swamp group to help it get established, Mr. Seidel said.

Mr. Williams said the Black Swamp Conservancy picks up where the Nature Conservancy leaves off because the latter “can't be all things to all people.” The local group was formed, in part, because of concerns about dwindling farmland expressed by U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo), he said.

The two groups try to complement each other, not compete against each other.

One example: The heralded Green Ribbon Initiative announced in May to help promote and save the historic Oak Openings region. The campaign is the biggest push of its kind in northwest Ohio, and involves the Black Swamp Conservancy, the Nature Conservancy, Toledo Area Metroparks, the Toledo Zoo, the Oak Openings Region Preservation Alliance, the Oak Openings Land Conservancy, and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. Among other things, the groups are working in unison to acquire strips of land in western Lucas County in hopes of someday building connecting trails between the Wildwood, Secor, and Oak Openings metroparks.

One of the Black Swamp Conservancy's biggest fans is Howard Wise, executive director of the Ohio Department of Agriculture's office of farmland preservation.

“Whatever scale you have to rank land trusts, they would be in the top category in my opinion,” Mr. Wise said. “I like their professionalism. I like their multicounty focus. And I like their dedication and enthusiasm.”



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