Buying Noel Perrin’s Dream Can a Vision Restrict Future Generations? And Is That for the Best?

Saturday, December 27, 2014
Terry Osborne’s loving tribute to Noel Perrin and his legacy of land conservation in Thetford (Valley News, Dec. 20) brought to mind my own ruminations on the subject of land conservation when I thought about purchasing Noel Perrin’s farm.

I was a new arrival in the Upper Valley five years ago and looking for a home. Noel Perrin’s farm, sitting above the covered bridge on the way into Thetford Center, was an appealing opportunity. One aspect of this purchase that intrigued me was the possibility of writing an article titled, “Buying Noel Perrin’s Dream.” The topic would have been the pride and pitfalls of buying a property with conservation easement restrictions.

Prior to his death, as encouraged by federal tax laws, Perrin placed extensive easement restrictions on his farm. As a potential buyer, I had a special interest in the terms of the easement, but it is open to public inspection in the town land records. The easement bars essentially all development of the land other than in the envelope where the house sits. More unusually, it grants the public a right to use a trail to climb to the top of Bill Hill, including, interestingly, a right to use motorized access, at any future owner’s option.

In my article, I would have applauded Perrin for his foresight and generosity in placing the easement on his land. The pitch and turn of Tucker Hill Road when one approaches the farm from the south make the view a highlight of the Upper Valley. The walk up Bill Hill and the view from atop it are as beautiful as Osborne says.

I also would have recognized Perrin’s legal right to restrict his property in perpetuity with an easement, as well as the fiduciary duty imposed on the Upper Valley Land Trust to protect the easement on his land forever. (Last year, after extensive debate, the Vermont Legislature dropped — apparently for good — a bill that would have allowed a land trust or a political board in Montpelier to move a conservation easement from the donor’s land to other, substitute land. The Upper Valley Land Trust opposed that idea, and I suspect Perrin would have as well.)

I then would have gone on to speculate about some of the possible pitfalls of owning a property covered by this easement, and one imposed by no less a luminary than Noel Perrin. The easement, including but not limited to the public trail up Bill Hill, is an expression of Perrin’s vision of the land, making real in the fine print of legalese the spirit of the land described in First Person Rural and other Perrin works. Buying the land subject to the easement would have amounted to buying Noel Perrin’s dream.

With what possible consequences? Would my neighbors regard me as a welcome new steward of the legacy, or a suspicious interloper who might tarnish the dream? Perrin no doubt was a hero to the Upper Valley Land Trust, but would I enjoy the same warm relationship with this private organization? When Thetford schoolchildren climbed Bill Hill would they express gratitude at the opportunity to cross “my land,” or would they (or their parents) wave around their Perrin-granted property rights? Would Perrin’s gift become my burden?

And as a private landowner would I feel unduly constrained by Perrin’s legacy? Private property ownership has a powerful hold on the American imagination in part because it represents an opportunity, within limits, for creative individual expression. My house, my land, my property. Would Perrin looming over my shoulder make me less of an owner and more of a tenant?

On a less personal level, I would have asked whether the dead-hand control created by easements is consistent with our modern legal approach to prohibit efforts by one generation to control the future through perpetual trusts or other restrictions on selling of property. And whether a system of conservation driven by the voluntary actions of individual landowners is up to the challenge of protecting what needs protecting and encouraging good development in the right places?

I might have gone on to observe that as welcome as this and other easements in the neighborhood are, they would be unlikely to protect the key features of Thetford’s landscape if, say, climate-change migrants from Florida moved to the Upper Valley in large numbers in the future. That would take a genuine commitment to comprehensive land-use planning and regulation of the kind that was ascendant in Vermont in the era of Gov. Deane Davis but has been harder to locate in recent years.

And I would have pondered whether the $2 billion in annual federal tax deductions that now subsidize conservation easement donations across the country add to the increasing concentration of wealth in our society, and whether some or all of that money could be better spent in other ways, like prison reform, child protection or what have you.

Ultimately, the relatively high price tag on the farm, the long commuting distance to Vermont Law School and especially the daunting estimate of the cost of keeping all the old barns standing led me to drop the idea of buying Noel Perrin’s dream. I bought a house in another Upper Valley community instead. My land is not covered by an easement, but some of my neighbors have easements on their land, which I do appreciate. And I never got to write the article.

John Echeverria is a professor at the Vermont Law School and lives in Strafford.

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