The Universal Notebook: Preservation isn’t the same as conservation

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Although Riverbend Farm in Saco is a few miles south of Forecaster territory, I have been following a disagreement there out of personal and philosophical interest.

My personal interest is that I know the chief actors in the drama and have a great deal of respect for both. My philosophical interest is that the dispute over the use of the farm illustrates the difference between conservation and preservation.

Riverbend Farm is 105-acre property on the Saco River that had a conservation easement placed on it by the late Mary Merrill in 1998. The Saco Valley Land Trust holds that easement. The owner of the farm, Mary Merrill’s nephew Tom, wants to sell it for $1.3 million to the Ecology School, an outdoor education program that is losing its rented home on Ferry Beach in Saco.

The land trust is concerned the school would not be in keeping with the terms of the easement. I believe it would.

“It is the dominant purpose of this Conservation Easement,” states the Merrill document, “to preserve and protect in perpetuity the natural, farmland, scenic, agricultural, open space pastures, ecological and wildlife habitat features and rural character of the Protected Property.”

The mission and values of the Ecology School – “to foster stewardship of the Earth by educating youth and adults in the science of ecology and the practice of sustainability” – are perfectly in keeping with the spirit, if not the letter of the easement.

Two of my three daughters taught at the Ferry Beach Ecology School. They no longer have any connection with the program, but their experience convinces me that it would be a shame to prevent the school from purchasing the farm and placing it in the service of raising environmental consciousness.

The Riverbend Farm easement really amounts to preservation rather than conservation, as it does not provide for public access and restricts new buildings. The Ecology School would like to build a pair of dormitories and a dining hall, but it would leave 100 acres open. It would also farm the land and use the natural environment to teach ecological values.

To my mind, conservation allows for human use while preservation does not. I’m not sure exactly what value there is to an easement that just says, “Don’t change this private property in any way.”

Neighbors, of course, will object to any proposal anywhere that changes the status quo. This is the sort of NIMBYism we saw with the Payson property in Cumberland Foreside and on Flying Point in Freeport when L.L. Bean built its Outdoor Discovery School facility.

A year ago (Feb. 2, 2015) in this column, I explained my objections to allowing the dead to dictate land use. Development rights should not be separated from property ownership. If Mary Merrill wanted her farm to remain “as is” forever, she should have given it to the land trust rather than to her nephew.

The city of Saco is now being asked to change its zoning to allow the school in a rural zone. I assume it will do so.

Richard Rhames, president of the Saco Valley Land Trust board, is a farmer, a citizen activist, the host of a local access television program and a friend of mine. I know he has wrestled earnestly with the issue of honoring Mary Merrill’s wishes. As I understand it, the land trust, fearing a lawsuit by the owner, has dropped its opposition to the sale of the farm and is now focused on limiting the scale of development.

Drew Dumsch, director of the Ecology School, has been searching for a permanent year-round home for the 17-year-old school that will lose its seasonal lease on Ferry Beach in 2018. He believes he has found that home in Riverbend Farm.

“We are committed to not only fulfilling the terms of the easement,” Dumsch said, “but actually creating net conservation gain from the site – more fertile farm soil, higher plant and wildlife diversity, increased ecosystem services – which includes training thousands of future conservationists, farmers and agroecologists for years to come.”

Fifty years ago, the lines between environmental right and wrong were very distinct. Today, they are increasingly blurred, such that we often find conservationists on both sides of controversial issues.

The Ecology School and the Saco Valley Land Trust are two organizations that share many of the same environmental values. It is my hope that they can set aside their differences and come to a meeting of the minds that will enable Riverbend Farm to flourish with new life rather than remain a private-property museum.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.