Planting seeds for the future
Farmers aim to preserve lands well beyond tomorrow
Part 4 of 5
Growing into the future: The modern farm

By Josh Perttunen - Enterprise Staff

Sept. 4, 2014

Five farmland properties west of Pine Lake in Chenequa, that had once been part of a larger property, are united once again - in purpose only - by the Tall Pines Conservancy, which placed them into conservation easements that prevent further development.    
Submitted photo

TOWN OF OCONOMOWOC - Farming is a career where land stewardship has long been associated with success. Though individual seasons are full of their own unique trials, tribulations and successes, a cautious eye must always be trained upon what the future could yield.

In that vein, some owners of farmland in Waukesha County look beyond the few seasons that follow the current one - and attempt to ensure that their land remains as it is forever. Using conservation easements, the Tall Pines Conservancy in Nashotah helps farmers to etch their plans into existence.

“Our interest is primarily to preserve farmland, water resources, larger tracts of land, those facing development pressures and those in wildlife corridors. Active farms near lakes and streams are ideal.”

In the Town of Oconomowoc, farmers and other community members have communicated the importance of the community at large’s rural character, requesting that all of the town’s forward-thinking plans keep agriculture at the forefront.


Perpetual conservation

The Tall Pines Conservancy was started in 1999 as the Chenequa Land Conservancy, with the goal of placing farmlands west of Pine Lake into conservation easements.

A conservation easement, explains executive director Susan Buchanan, is a tool to preserve land in perpetuity, never allowing it to be developed. It is a legally binding agreement that is forever attached to a property, regardless of ownership changes.

By placing land into such an easement, Tall Pines is also responsible for monitoring lands in those easements to ensure that they are abiding by the terms outlined in the documents.

The Kieckhefer Family Farm in Hartland has been placed into a conservation easement, meaning it can’t be developed and will maintain its rural character. The Tall Pines Conservancy has 15 properties in conservation easements and two it owns outright, for a total of 1,000 acres.    
Josh Perttunen/Enterprise Staff

The difference between the value of the land before the easement and after the easement is determined and counted as a donation toward the conservancy and can be written off as a charitable tax donation. Taxes on the properties also cease.

But it’s about more than the tax donation and tax break, Buchanan said.

“These projects take a long time,” she noted. “These lands are dear to people’s hearts and you have to make sure everyone in the family is involved.”

The Chenequa Land Conservancy ultimately became the Tall Pines Conservancy in 2005, when it expanded its range to the northwestern portion of Waukesha County. The organization now has 1,000 acres in easements, counting 15 conservation easements and two properties that it owns outright.

All lands that property owners attempt to put into easements are scrutinized.

“They have to live up to conservation values,” Buchanan said. “Our interest is primarily to preserve farmland, water resources, larger tracts of land, those facing development pressures and those in wildlife corridors. Active farms near lakes and streams are ideal.”

In the Town of Oconomowoc, the original Koepke farm on Highway K is an example of a farm that fit much of the criteria.

“It is right up against the city of Oconomowoc,” Buchanan said, “and was facing development pressure. It could have easily been developed into homes had it not been put into an easement.”

Other examples dot the county.


Fiscal impact minimal

Though lands in the conservancy do come off of the tax rolls, Town of Oconomowoc Planner and Administrator Jeffrey Herrmann said that there is a trade-off.

“These lands were not that large of a tax base to begin with,” he noted. “Remaining as farmland, they do not incur much cost for municipal services.”

Also, the farmland keeps the rural character that drives up the price of surrounding homes.

In the Town of Oconomowoc, there is an effort to preserve agricultural lands using the agricultural preservation zoning classification, which ensures that such plots remain at least 35 acres in size.

According to the land use plan, 38.4 percent of the Town of Oconomowoc, or 7,778 acres, is designated as prime agricultural land. This is 4,374 acres more than was designated for urban residential zoning.

Though zoning can always be subject to change, Herrmann said inquiries into development have been met by explaining the rules governing agricultural preservation zones.

Though the conversation ends there for most developers, Herrmann said the stringency of what’s in place has been tested by individual property owners. The 40-acre Cy Peterson property on North Pole Lane was permitted to have a 2.8-acre chunk carved out for a grandson’s use.

This issue was carefully considered by the Town Board and Plan Commission, Herrmann said, before rezoning that land as suburban estate. He added that the circumstances were so unique in that Peterson had been led by earlier planners to believe he could break apart the acreage and the 35-acre minimum was still being met.

Still, farmers are leery of the precedent it sets, and that developers could also find wiggle room.

“There seems to be a mantra among planners that open space is vacant space,” said John Koepke of Koepke Family Farms in the Town of Oconomowoc. “But, that open space is far from vacant. It might be open and it might be pretty, but it is also providing food, fiber for clothing, fuel and recreational opportunities.”

Koepke also serves on the Town Board.

“This is one of the most desirable places in Wisconsin. People want to live here,” Koepke said. “We’re that popular of a place for what we are, not what we could be turned into...

“After all, this is Lake Country,” Koepke said. “You have to have some ‘country.’”

Buchanan also expressed concern.

“Zoning can change because of political situations,” she said. “Land placed into conservation easements will be preserved forever.”