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Land trusts join pool for liability insurance

RENO — A national conservation group that helps local, nonprofit land trusts buy up property to protect natural resources is creating a first-of-its-kind liability insurance company to help them cover the costs of legal battles with developers.

More than 420 land trusts protecting a total of more than 6 million acres in 46 states are joining efforts with the national Land Trust Alliance to form the company, Terrafirma Risk Retention Group LLC.

Alliance president Rand Wentworth says the new concept allows land trusts to pool their resources and help level the playing field in legal fights with “wealthy developers who want to pave over paradise.”

“As land values rise, land trusts will face increasing litigation from deep pocketed opponents who are able to bleed them dry to develop conserved land,” said Wentworth, a former commercial real estate developer himself.

“Up until now, it had been David vs. Goliath,” he said on Sunday.

The land trusts protect a wide variety of properties, from wildlife habitat, forests, parks and shorelines, to farms, ranches, gardens and historic battlefields.

Only four states are not represented in the group — Arkansas, Minnesota, North Dakota and Oklahoma.

California’s 53 land trusts are the most in any state, protecting a total of more than 700,000 acres in parcels stretching from the Sierra Nevada to the Pacific Coast.

Other significant members of the new joint venture include the Reno-based Nevada Land Trust, which has helped conserve 42,000 acres of land and associated water rights since it was formed in 1998, ranging from wetlands at Lake Tahoe to fish habitat in northeast Nevada.

Utah’s Summit Land Conservancy holds conservation easements on more than 2,500 acres in and around Park City and the Bear River Conservancy in Logan oversees more than 400 acres in the Morton section of the Bear River Bottoms in conjunction with a conservation easement with the Bridgerland Audubon Society.

“The Summit Land Conservancy was the first accredited land trust in Utah and is pleased to be part of Terrafirma,” said Cheryl Fox, its executive director.

Wentworth said legal bills for some land trust litigation exceeds $1 million and often top $250,000.

The Bear Yuba Land Trust, formerly the Nevada County Land Trust in Nevada City, Calif., recently had to conduct a special fundraising campaign to reimburse $300,000 in legal costs when it was sued by an adjacent land owner who wanted to build a road across land set aside to protect the Bear River and Yuba River watersheds west of Lake Tahoe.

Terrafirma plans to offer land trusts a policy with a first year annual premium of $60 per conservation easement or fee-owned land. Claims will be limited to a maximum of $500,000 and subject to a $5,000 deductible per claim.

“This innovative service enables community-based nonprofits to protect wildlife habitat and other conserved lands that represent billions of dollars of public and private investment,” said Andrew Bowman, director of the environment program for the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, one of eight major conservation foundations providing $4 million in capital funding to help launch the service.

Frederic C. Rich, a partner in an international law firm based in New York that provided nearly $1 million in pro bono services to help get the project off the ground, said land trusts risk losing their tax status if they don’t have resources to monitor or defend conservation easements.

“With insurance form Terrafirma, land trusts can now assure their communities, donors, the IRS, other regulators and legislators that they have the financial capacity to defend their conserved lands in perpetuity,” he said.

Steffney Thompson, executive director of the Oconee River Land Trust in northeast Georgia, said it’s a welcome relief for people like her — the lone staffer of the small organization that protects 4,400 acres of forests, farms, wetlands and riparian buffers.

“The Terrafirma conservation defense liability insurance program is a very reasonable, balanced, targeted, critical service that helps us protect our community’s conservation lands,” she said.

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