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Conservation easement violations suspected

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POSTED: August 21, 2013 10:09 a.m.
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The Jan and Dennis Waters Educational and Welcome Center sits on Miller Pasture land, which is a 1,400-acre conservation easement in Allenhurst. Georgia Land Trust recently informed the Liberty County Commission of possible violations of conservation easements.

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Georgia Land Trust staffers recently informed the Liberty County Board of Commissioners of possible violations of conservation easements, such as unauthorized timbering and trespassing on conservation lands in the county.  
GLT staff attorney Kat Nelson and conservation planner Drew Ruttinger spoke about the suspected violations when they updated county officials on the county’s green-space program last week. The goal for Liberty County is to conserve 43,211 acres, or 20 percent of the county, Nelson said.
“As of May 2012, the county had conserved 12,274 acres, 28 percent of the goal,” she said. “As of July 2013, we had conserved 19,792 acres — 46 percent of the goal.”
Liberty County’s green-space program was established about nine years ago, according to the GLT.
The trust works with private landowners on donating land for preservation purposes.
“A conservation easement is a legal agreement between a landowner and a qualified conservation organization in which the owner voluntarily agrees to restrict the type and amount of development that can occur on the land,” states galandtrust.org. In turn, the landowner who has donated the property for conservation will get a break on taxes, according to the GLT website.
Nelson told county officials the GLT monitors conservation easements for the county twice a year, in the spring and fall.
“We contact the landowner, go to the site, walk and ride around, take pictures and write up a report that is sent to the county,” she said. “GLT then assists the county with landowner follow-up as needed.”
The purpose of monitoring is to update property files, map the land, update landowners’ contracts, conduct site inspections and follow up on any suspected violations, she added.
The GLT attorney told commissioners the trust suspects timbering was done at the Hampton Island Preserve, and said landowners first must notify the county before harvesting trees. Nelson said cutting some trees to help manage a forest is permissible on conservation land, but large-scale cutting for commercial sale is not allowed and could be considered a violation.
“It appeared that it was a more substantial cut than purely management, but it is possible there was a pine-beetle infestation, etc.,” she said. “We are working to communicate with the landowner to determine what happened, and if, or where, the timber was (allegedly) sold.”
Commissioners said the county has a timber-operations ordinance in place. Liberty County Administrator Joey Brown said the county recently amended the ordinance.
“It basically requires that individuals performing timber harvest operations must first obtain a permit through the county road department and must display that permit at the harvest site,” Brown said. “The main purpose of the ordinance is to ensure that if damage is done to a county-maintained road, then individuals can be held responsible for repair. However, a copy of the permit is transmitted to the Board of Assessors so that they can be aware that harvesting has occurred and can watch for a report from the harvester as is required by state law. (The ordinance) does not apply to individuals who are just cutting trees in their yards.”
The GLT made recommendations to help the county protect other conservation easements.
Nelson suggested signage be erected at Youman’s Pond because “it is a busy area” and a growing residential area abuts the property. She said no trespassing or vandalism was noted there.
However, a gate at Hall’s Knoll was vandalized and left open, Nelson said.
“Trespassers were noted on the property during the site visit,” she said. The individuals reportedly said they had come onto the property to drive around “because the gate was open,” Nelson told commissioners.
“We recommend a new sturdy gate and signs marking the property as protected (be installed),” she said.
Under the green-space program the GLT will continue to monitor existing conservation properties, assist the county in handling violations, work with landowners and help the county identify any potential properties suited for conservation easements, according to Nelson.


 

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