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Afton looking to conserve more land

Afton prides itself on its rural character and therefore it's continually trying to find new ways to preserve its land.

Afton Planning Commission discussed conservation easements and how the city wants to approach them during its May 6 meeting.

A conservation easement is a legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust or government agency that permanently limits uses of the land in order to protect its conservation values, such as open space, habitat, vegetation and scenic views.

"In general we have been using conservation easements as a way to preserve open space," City Administrator Ron Moorse said. "When you put a conservation easement on a property, what you're really doing is allowing it not to be developed.

"Property values drop if it can't be developed, but the offset is we're protecting those important conservation values."

Currently Afton has one major conservation easement located at the Cedar Bluff Homestead, which is a clustered housing development.

The topic of conservation easements came to Planning Commission at the request of Afton City Council because the city is interested in preserving open space and controlling its density.

During last Monday's meeting, Moorse said the first step would be to identify what specific conservation values Planning Commission feels are most important.

Commissioner Kris Kopitzke said he was a bit confused about the idea of conservation easements because he didn't understand the benefit or how to best manage them.

"Who's taking care of the land and what are we preserving," he said. "If you put a conservation easement on farmland, is it supposed to be farmed? Is that preserving it?

"All we can do with conservation easement land is look at it."

Moorse informed Planning Commission that they could in fact put stipulations on easements stating whether or not they would be passive, active, include trails or other infrastructure.

"You can lay that out the way you want to," he said.

Additionally, commissioners questioned how and when conservation easements can be acquired.

Moorse said the two primary options for acquiring conservation easements would be by providing incentives to landowners to put a portion of their property into easement and by requiring easements on all new subdivisions.

Commissioner Kitty Kilmer said it would be important for Planning Commission to identify where they would want conservation easements so that they don't have sporadic easements throughout the city like the city had now with much of its parkland.

"It really hinges on a game plan of continuous corridors over time," she said.

Planning Commission Chairwoman Barb Ronningen suggested commissioners review the city's Comprehensive Plan to identify what conservation values they feel the city should preserve.

Additionally, Commissioner Dick Bend suggested that staff talk to Belwin Conservancy, which is entirely conservation easement, about how best to handle conservation easements.

"Preserving land is ancillary to their mission," he said.

Planning Commission will discuss its conservation values at its June meeting.

Amber Kispert-Smith

Amber Kispert-Smith has been the schools and Afton reporter at the Woodbury Bulletin since 2008. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota. She previously worked as a reporter for Press Publications in White Bear Lake.

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