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Public meeting on conservation easements Feb. 28

To be or not to be, that is the question prompting a public meeting Thursday, Feb. 28 at 7 p.m. about the establishment of conservation easements on up to 12 of the town’s green spaces.

“Nothing would really change [with the properties] except nothing would change. That’s the point,” said Signal Mountain Councilwoman Annette Allen, who has been spearheading the initiative since early 2010. “They are just lovely green spaces that raise property values and kids can play in them and animals can live in them. The town would maintain ownership of the properties and would continue to maintain them. The easements are kind of an insurance policy to ensure these areas stay green spaces.

“In the land use meetings we held back in 2007, when people were asked what the strengths of the town were, one of the top responses was its natural beauty. It’s obviously really important to the people. It’s just a part of what Signal Mountain is; it’s a part of our heritage.”

Emily Parrish of the Land Trust for Tennessee will be present at the public meeting to answer questions and educate the community on how a conservation easement works. The statewide nonprofit organization has been proposed as the holder and therefore enforcer of the town’s possible easements.

“In a conservation easement, we are restricting development: how many times land can be divided and restrictions on other uses,” Parrish explained. “Our goal is to keep the land in larger parcels. It is one [law] tool I know of that is permanent.”

She added that even if a piece of property is part of a conservation easement, it can still be sold, passed on to heirs or donated, but the easement would remain intact, thereby always protecting the land from further development.

“I believe philosophically, as the Native American proverb suggests, that we don’t own the land, we simply borrow it from future generations,” said Signal Mountain resident and former member of the town’s Planning Commission and Parks Board Jeff Duncan, who holds a doctorate in ecology and environmental policy and has worked for a federal land management agency. “In placing easements on the land we are foreclosing any and all decision-making by future town residents and leaders. We are essentially taking future generations out of the land management equation and putting our land protection on autopilot. I believe this is arrogant and a total overstepping of government that demonstrates a complete distrust of future generations, and I find that sad.”

Allen said the potential for problems is always there.

“The lands in question are already protected by deed restrictions and local ordinances,” said Duncan. “There’s no current or imminent threat of development, and these areas are predominently undevelopable lands with steep slopes and serve as existing parks. I’m not at all opposed to strengthening our land protection ordinances, but I believe doing so is a matter to be taken on exclusively by the residents of Signal Mountain, not by an outside entity such as a land trust.”

He added that in addition to precluding future generations from using the lands as they see fit, the current or near future town administration could be penalized for even unintentional improper usage, as the Land Trust is meant to serve as a watchdog over the lands.

Parrish said she has walked through some of the properties with Allen and other town officials and that they all agreed that if they move forward with the easements, it wouldn’t be “an all or nothing” deal. Some properties may be appropriate for a conservation easement and some may not, she said.

“We would all like to think that parks are protected, but we never know what a future governmental body may decide,” Parrish added.

Allen said she hopes as many people as want to can come to the meeting to learn more about this process and give their input.

“I believe in taking a long-term view,” she said. “You can’t put a price tag on areas like this. They improve our quality of life so much.”

A resolution will be considered at the regularly scheduled March 11 town council meeting whether or not to move forward with the easements.

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