A view of Mettowee Valley fields and surrounding hills from a hillside vantage point in Rupert. (Photo by Tom Slayton)
A view of Mettowee Valley fields and surrounding hills from a hillside vantage point in Rupert. (Photo by Tom Slayton)

MONTPELIER -- The Vermont Land Trust has ended work on S.119, a bill that would have allowed conservation groups to seek changes to conservation easements through a review process.

In a statement, the trust said it "learned that there is not widespread comfort with the current bill" over the last few weeks since it "paused" work on S.119.

"Over the past month, we have learned much from VLT members, conservation supporters, and owners of conserved land," officials wrote. "We were reminded again about how much our members care about the land we have protected and believe in the permanence of our easements. While our members also understand that VLT cares deeply and is entirely committed to the permanent protection of special places, these individuals want to learn more and be a part of the process before any legislation is enacted."

The Vermont Land Trust may come back with a different bill next biennium. In the meantime, the organization will "continue our conversations with those who care most about land protection," and work with the Upper Valley Land Trust (which opposed the bill), the Agency of Agriculture and the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board "to consider necessary legislation."

"As we pass the legacy of our conservation easements on to future generations, it is important for land trusts in Vermont to create a legal and public process to govern conservation easement changes," officials wrote. "That process must be built with the trust and understanding of Vermonters, our members and owners of conserved land."

S.119 would have set criteria for conservation easement amendments and created a panel for reviewing the changes.

Land trusts have the ability to amend easements, but there is no state law regulating the changes.

The Vermont Land Trust and The Nature Conservancy have been working on the bill for two years and drafted much of the language.

Two of the provisions of S.119 would have allowed for the review of minor changes to conservation easements.

A third provision would have given an easement-holder, typically a land trust, the ability to make major changes to the development rights as long as a special panel approves.

Critics say the Category 3 amendment provision could have a negative impact on donors because it would allow a land trust to revoke easements, eliminate the obligation to protect land and effectively allow development on property.

About 30 percent of conservation easements are donated to trusts in Vermont; the rest are purchased. Most donors expect land that is under an easement to be protected in perpetuity. The Category 3 provision as outlined in S.119 could allow easement holders, such as the Vermont Land Trust and The Nature Conservancy, to "extinguish" easements through the new review process.

In a statement, the Vermont Land Trust said while the organization has made modest changes to easements, it has never terminated one and would never consider doing so.