CWI Fellow McKenna White Interviews Sarah Kipp of the Land Conservancy of Adams County

Sarah Kipp is the Conservation Coordinator for the Land Conservancy of Adams County, a local nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the rural landscape of Adams County, Pennsylvania. She recently sat down with CWI Fellow, McKenna White ‘25 to talk a bit about the Land Conservancy and how people can get involved. 

CWI: “First and foremost, what is a Land Conservancy and what do you at the Land Conservancy of Adams County do?”

Kipp: “The kind of organization that we are called is a Land Trust, which means that we’re a qualified conservation organization that can either preserve land using land acquisition, which means we would own the property outright, or through a conservation easement. A lot of Land Trusts do both, sometimes they have properties that they own and then open to the public nature trails, nature preserves, things like that, but we actually don’t do any active pursuit of land acquisition.           

All the land that we preserve is through a Conservation Easement, which is a tool that preserves open land including farmland, open space, and natural habitats through deals with private landowners who decide to protect their property in perpetuity. A conservation easement is a unique tool that we can use in this country based on our legal system that allows property owners to permanently encumber their property in a way that protects its open space value. It is a perpetual document that gets reported to the courthouse and associated with the property deed in perpetuity. Basically, it identifies the particular resources of the property and then limits activity and uses in the future to protect those resources.

The main things that they typically do are: 1) limit subdivision and development by either limiting how much impervious surface can be on the property, ie. limiting rooftops and pavements, or 2) identify a particular location on the property where all buildings have to be clustered so that the rest of the property remains open. We also restrict activity use and uses that would be incompatible with protecting the resources there. If it’s a farm, we might require that they follow a conservation plan so that it’s sustainable agriculture. If it’s forest land we require that they follow a forest management plan so that they are still trying to maintain sustainable woodland. And of course, it would limit things like oil and gas extraction that would be environmentally detrimental to the property. Those are also things that we totally prohibit from happening in the future.

Every time that property is sold to someone else or passed on to heirs, the future property owners have to adhere to the easement terms. Our responsibility as the land trust, the conservation organization, is to work with those property owners, make sure they understand the terms of the easement and that they are adhering to those terms. We conduct annual inspections on every property just to check-in with landowners and report any changes to make sure the easements are being followed. We also have an obligation to legally enforce any easement if there is ever a violation. So, when we do the annual inspections, if we saw any kind of activity that wasn’t permitted, we would have an obligation to correct that; hopefully working with the property owner to correct that, but if not then we would take them to court.”

CWI: “When was the Land Conservancy of Adams County Founded?”

Kipp: “We were founded in 1995 and actually, when we were founded someone did donate a small amount of acreage to us. They donated six acres, so we do actually own six acres, but since then it’s all been conservation easements. Today we now hold 173 conservation easements, which is over 12,200 acres of land that is protected through those. For reference, the [Gettysburg] battlefield is about 6-7,000 acres, so we have 1 ½ or two times the battlefield that is protected lands, but of course the land we protect is all over the county.

Adams County also has a preservation program through the county government though they just do farmland preservation. So they do an agricultural program and they have protected 23,000 acres and Michaux State Forest has another 20,000 acres. We are actually quite small in the preservation game in Adams County, but always growing.”

CWI: “Apart from the landowners, do you partner with some of those other organizations that you mentioned earlier on projects?”

Kipp: “We do! We partner with county programs, because Adams County is sort of unique, especially on the western side towards Michaux, which is the steeper area with a lot of woodlands. Sometimes they get applications to their programs that have a lot of property with a fair amount of woodland which wouldn’t be considered for preservation through a farmland preservation program. So, sometimes we work with the landowner and the County to jointly preserve a property; we’ll do the woodland part and they’ll do the farmland.

The Land Conservancy receives both donated easements, meaning the landowner is just giving the easement to us without any compensation, but sometimes we also apply for grants that we get in order to compensate landowners for preserving their property. So, we work with a federal grant program called the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, which is through the USDA and through the Natural Resources Conservation Service. That’s one of our bigger funders. We also apply to the County for matching grants often through their grange based grant program.

We have partnered a fair amount with the American Battlefield Trust. They of course are focused on protecting more areas of the battlefield and the Land Conservancy also considers the historical landscape around Gettysburg to be one of our priority areas. We have protected a number of farms that aren’t in the boundary of the battlefield, but are privately owned and are in the historic district. The American Battlefield Trust has helped us with some of the projects as well because they recognize the value of protecting working lands and privately owned lands that retain that historic character around the battlefield.”

CWI: “Can you tell us a bit about some of the ongoing projects you are working on right now? If you have any? ”

Kipp: “We have a bunch! Typically we close on five to seven projects a year, so on average we preserve about 500 acres a year. This year is actually a little bit odd because we actually haven’t closed on any, but we will probably have a big December and finish a bunch of projects.

One of our bigger projects is in central and southeast Adams County; we’re working with Hanover Shoe Farm, which is a company that owns 2,000 acres of the county and I believe they are the largest Standardbred Horse breeder in the country. They breed horses for harness racing. So they are a big landowner and they have decided that they want to preserve all of their property and they are working with the Land Conservancy to protect about 750 acres. One of the properties is actually very large at 630 acres, which is much larger than the average farm size of Adams County at 130 acres, so it was a great opportunity for us to do one large parcel [of land] at once. Interestingly, we are doing it through a special category within the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, which is that federal program designed to protect grassland habitat. So we are protecting grasses of special significance with the intent of protecting habitat for grassland birds. The landowner in that case is actually going to change some of their management practices in order to improve habitat for grassland bird species. So that’s an interesting project that we are hopefully going to be finishing up this year.

We also have a handful of purchase easements we are trying to wrap up; we are actually working on one near the covered bridge which goes over Marsh Creek. The Land Conservancy has a bunch of preserved properties in that area; there is one missing piece in the middle but we are working on that property this year. We have a mix of properties, including some pasture, plus forestland and wetlands, so yeah, a bunch of things are ongoing.”

CWI: “For people who may not know, why is there a need to preserve the agricultural lands in Adams County?”

Kipp: “Agriculture is one of the bigger economic drivers of Adams County, apart from tourism of course around the [Gettysburg] battlefield, and we have a really unique agricultural landscape here. We have an interesting horse breeding part of southeastern Adams County, we have your standard livestock and crop operations in the central part of Adams County, and then on the western side, all of the Fruit Belt where we have 20,000 acres of consecutive orchards. Adams County is the biggest producer of apples in Pennsylvania.

So we have a really unique agricultural landscape, but we also feel that development pressure from a variety of places. We are close enough to Harrisburg to be a commuter to Harrisburg. We have pressure from people moving up from Maryland to avoid retirement taxes, so we get a lot of retirees moving up to this area. We are also a commuter [community] to those places like Frederick (Maryland), Washington D.C., Baltimore. Especially with COVID and more people working remotely, Adams County is one of the more desirable places to be because you are not too far from cities but you still get that rural, country experience. So we do get that gradual development pressure that happens. Pennsylvania also has a very strange municipal structure where Adams County has 35 municipalities which are all doing their own planning and zoning and not really coordinating regionally. That unfortunately means that we do not typically have very good planning for zoning that is in place to protect rural landscapes and keep our towns and boroughs compact.

Land preservation is really this way for us to protect open spaces when we don’t have good enough planning and zoning in place. We are trying to make sure that we protect our rural landscape and our quality of life here, while directing growth into appropriate areas when they already have infrastructure for those services like sewer, water, schools, etc.”

CWI: “What are some of the ways that people can get involved with the Land Conservancy?”

Kipp: “Ooh, there’s a ton of ways. We are very small, I’m the only full time staff, so we rely heavily on volunteer support. We have a volunteer board of directors and a bunch of committees that are all volunteer run to help us be the organization that we are. We have a conservation committee, which is all the people who are interested in the projects that we run. Every month they read reports of what the projects that we run are and what the status of them are. They are also the people involved with helping me with our annual inspections, so they actually get to go out to the properties every year and visit them.

We also have an events committee. We have a few major fundraising events every year so those are pretty much run by volunteers. We always need volunteers to help with organizing our events and helping on the event days. We are hoping to get more hands-on volunteer opportunities, so we are currently working on a hiking trail project in western Adams County where Boyer Nurseries is. So Boyer Nurseries and Hauser Hill Event Center and the Thirsty Farmer are all preserved properties and we are hoping to get a hiking trail that would connect them together. That would be a trail that would need to be maintained by volunteers for the most part, so when that’s up and running we will have even more need for people to get some outdoorsy, hands-on volunteer work.”

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