On the Hunt for Conservation Easements: Past, Present, and Future

A major goal of FLOW’s Lower Olentangy Greenspace Plan project was to inventory and map existing green and open spaces within the Lower Olentangy Watershed. This not only includes the obvious suspects such as parks, but also more obscure parcels such as conservation easements. Conservation easements are voluntary legal agreements between landowners and a qualified organization in which the landowner places restriction on the use of the property to protect the natural value of the land. Donation of a conservation easement typically protects land permanently while keeping it in private ownership.

Locating conservation easements proved harder than one might imagine. It might seem that one could go down to the local court house and simply request a list?  Or perhaps one could go on-line to the county recorder’s database and do a simple search for easements? As a FLOW researcher recently discovered, it’s not quite so simple.

Some easements are old and discovery requires examining the ownership history of the land parcel and plat. A plat is a map of a land area, usually on the scale of a neighborhood and a parcel is a piece of land used for a single purpose (such as a park or a home). Essentially a plat map shows the collection of parcels that make up a neighborhood. While old plat maps may be photographed and stored electronically, original public land survey plats were hand drawn and the artistry and penmanship of each plat is unique. Some were drawn with color, others in shades of gray, and others in black and white. The level of detail captured in each plat map was dependent on the diligence and accuracy of the individual surveyors. Some surveyors created maps of remarkable detail, while other surveyors were less meticulous

Figure 1. 1803 Plat Map                                             Figure 2. 2004 Plat Map and Conservation Easement (Worthington, OH)                                                                                (Kempton Run Drive, Columbus,OH)

Another challenge is that multiple organizations currently hold conservation easements. And no single clearinghouse exists. The Lower Olentangy watershed spans two counties and multiple government jurisdictions. Each has its own record keeping, its own type of database, and its own policies and procedures. To complicate matters, the costs of surveying land is sometimes prohibitive and electronic files are not even available or accurate.

So what role will conservation easements play in the future preservation efforts?  As central Ohio strives to accommodate population growth and ensure enough green space – both for healthy humans and healthy functioning ecosystems, the conservation easement may need to evolve as well. Climate change and other potential landscape changes raise questions about the effectiveness and adaptability of permanent instruments.