Conservation restrictions, proposed conservation easements – Unicameral update

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A proposal to change conservation and preservation easement provisions in Nebraska was heard by the Judiciary Committee on Feb. 11.

Senator Dave Murman

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The senator. Dave Murman

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Senator Dave Murman

A conservation easement is a voluntary legal agreement that permanently limits the use of land for conservation purposes. Conservation easements do the same for historical purposes.

Under LB1135, introduced by Glenvil Sen. Dave Murman, the Deeds Registry would require approval from the appropriate governing body before registering a conservation or preservation easement. For properties wholly or partially located in a town or village, this body is the local planning commission. For property outside a town or village, the appropriate governing body is the county council. The Council of Niobrara has jurisdiction over properties within the scenic Niobrara River Corridor.

A landowner wishing to extend the term of an easement could only do so with the approval of the appropriate governing body under the bill. If property on an easement is condemned for public use, the easement would be terminated and the easements would be subject to property taxes.

The bill would also increase the time the planning commission would have to provide feedback to the governing body from 60 days to 90 days. If no comments are provided, the proposed easement would be refused.

Also, under LB1135, an easement could not exceed 99 years.

Eternity is a long time, Murman said, and the state should not bind future generations to conservation decisions that may have seemed right but no longer make sense.

“The federal government’s acquisition of Nebraska land could shift more of the property tax burden to repair bridges, repair roads, and fund schools for current landowners and cause additional fiscal problems for local governments. “Murman said. “Set aside so much for conservation [could] devastate Nebraska’s food production and economy.

Cherry County Commissioner Tanya Storer spoke in favor of the bill. While it’s true that a conservation easement would protect first-generation family farms and ranches, Storer said, second-generation [landowner] would not be eligible for any financial benefit for their conservation practices.

“Perpetual conservation easements create a negative easement that places the deeded property holder in a subordinate position to the easement holder,” Storer said. “Life tells our young people, ‘we don’t trust you.’ It takes freedom and decision-making away from the living and buries them with the dead.

Hazard’s Trent Loos has also testified in support of LB1135. Collectively, the federal and state governments own 33% of the land mass of the United States, he said.

“It’s a matter of national security. We have people who don’t live on this land and don’t care about this land trying to figure out how we take care of this land,” Loos said.

Dale Schroeder spoke on behalf of the Keith County Board of Commissioners in support of the bill.

“Our state depends on agriculture and if we continue to allow the removal of land by preservation or conservation easements in perpetuity…we will also reduce the revenue provided by [agriculture] in Nebraska,” he said.

Debbie Borg, a fifth-generation farmer, also spoke out in favor of the bill. She said LB1135 would provide a way to provide local control and oversight for private landowners.

“We need to keep the property in private hands. Families, farmers, ranchers — stewards of the land, landowners — care deeply about their soil and their water,” Borg said. “The right to property is a fundamental freedom.

John Denton, representing Ducks Unlimited, opposed the bill. Restricting conservation easements undermines the private property rights of landowners, he said. Permanent decisions about development, drainage, power lines and gas are made all the time, Denton added.

“In a landscape where more than 95% of the land is privately owned, these agreements have been critical in providing wildlife habitat,” Denton said.

Kimberly Stuhr spoke out against the bill on behalf of Friends of Niobrara. Thirty-three thousand people floated down the Niobrara River last year, she said, and ranch families who want [maintain their easement] while choosing to voluntarily save river health should be allowed to do so.

“Perpetual conservation and agricultural easements are truly the only way to protect unique and magnificent resources like the Niobrara [river]”, Stuhr said. “In many ways, you could say that they would protect the history and the heritage of the state.

Kristal Stoner, executive director of Audubon Nebraska, also testified in opposition. Stoner said less than 1% of Nebraska is under servitude. The best part of a conservation easement, she says, is that it stays in the hands of private landowners.

“An easement is a smart investment and the benefits extend beyond just the landowners who choose them,” Stoner said. “Easements can be designed to ensure grasslands remain intact and do so in a way that serves both livestock and birds. They can also serve wetlands that filter our drinking water and support waterfowl migrations and waterfowl hunters.

The committee took no immediate action on LB1135.

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