April 19, 2002 – The Senate Planning and Environmental Protection Committee met briefly Friday morning to debate a proposed Uniform Conservation Easement Act but voted to table the measure for further study.
Sen. Adelbert Bryan argued to have one witness who had been subpoenaed to testify but failed to appear arrested, but he garnered no support from colleagues.
Coastal Zone Management director Janice D. Hodge sent a letter asking to be excused from testifying because she is currently attending a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration workshop in Charleston, South Carolina.
Hodge was one of three witnesses subpoenaed to testify Friday on the proposed legislation. The others were Planning and Natural Resources Commissioner Dean Plaskett and CZM legal counsel Julita De Leon.
Hodge wrote that she has "repeatedly" appeared before the Legislature and hopes to continue doing so. And she said other CZM personnel also asked to appear Friday could provide the same information that she could.
The committee chair, Sen. Donald "Ducks" Cole, read Hodge's letter into the record and seemed satisfied. Bryan was not. "This is not a letter saying somebody is ill," Bryan said. "This is a letter saying, 'I got your subpoena but let me tell you, I ain't going to be there.'" He added, "If we don't want to enforce subpoenas, then don't issue them."
Senate committees have subpoenaed numerous administration officials in the weeks since Attorney General Iver Stridiron wrote to Senate President Almando "Rocky" Liburd on March 18 saying a directive issued by Gov. Charles W. Turnbull last August was in force. That directive, which had been largely ignored in the intervening months, said that executive branch officials would not appear to testify at Senate hearings unless their doing so was cleared in advance through the Office of the Governor. In the days that followed, a number of officials who had been "invited" to testify failed to show up.
At Friday's hearing, a motion to excuse Hodge passed 4-1, with Sens. Cole, Roosevelt David, Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg and Carlton Dowe in favor and Bryan dissenting. The other two committee members, Alicia "Chucky" Hansen and Celestino A. White Sr., were absent.
The committee heard from Plaskett, Wanda Mills of the State Historic Preservation Office and Helen Gjessing of the League of Women Voters. Plaskett said DPNR has received numerous requests for rezoning and development in areas containing critical natural, cultural and historic resources. "Consequently, the department appreciates the necessity of this bill and endorses its enactment," he said.
However, he suggested that it be amended to provide that an easement holder must be a party in any proceeding to obtain a license, permit or order for demolition or change to the property; that the easement be recorded in the Lieutenant Governor's Office in the district where the property is located; that there be property or estate tax abatements or credits for those property owners; and that the DPNR commissioner be empowered to require such easements where there is a need to protect significant natural, cultural and historic resources.
Gjessing said the League supports the proposed act as a means by which property owners in conjunction with the government can preserve wildlife habitat, open space or agricultural land as well as the historic features of a building while still owning and using the property.
Saying that the concept is "virtually unknown" in the territory, Gjessing said DPNR officials should "make the benefits of conservation easements known to the public, not simply let it sit in the Code to languish unused."
A conservation easement is a legally binding covenant running with the deed to a property for a specified time or in perpetuity. Easement holders — defined in the bill as governmental bodies, charitable corporations, associations or trusts — have responsibility for monitoring and enforcing property restrictions to retain or protect natural, scenic or open-space values of the property. Easements do not grant ownership or absolve the property owner of responsibility for such things as property taxes, upkeep, maintenance or improvements.
A summary of the uniform easement bill states that it would "maximize the freedom" of the parties involved in an easement transaction to "impose restrictions on the use of land and improvements in order to protect them."
Easements are individually tailored to particular pieces of property or historic buildings, Gjessing said, and property owners must be made aware of their rights in connection therewith.
It was the consensus of the committee that further investigation is needed into the nature of easements and the rights of property owners. "This bill is not going to move forward today," Cole said before adjourning the hearing. "As I see it, there are some amendments that need to be added."
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