Comal County Ranchers Use ‘Conservation Easements’ to Save Property from Developers
One-year-old Riley Rooney is probably the biggest reason Teresa Ohlrich Johnson and her husband Rob Johnson converted 125 acres of their 130-acre Comal County ranch into a “conservation easement” last year.
In the decades to come, they want granddaughter Riley and their other descendants to enjoy the JO Ranch instead of counting the number of suburban homes crammed onto their land, located southwest of the Copper Ridge subdivision.
“Our property is right in the path of explosive development,” Rob said in an interview with MyCanyonLake.com.
A conservation easement is a voluntary legal agreement that allows landowners to retain title and management of their property while forfeiting, donating or selling certain development rights to a land trust, according to the Texas Agricultural Land Trust (TALT), which oversees conservation easements.
The legally binding agreements protect land in perpetuity from commercial or residential development, preserve habitats, and limit subdivision and fragmentation of the land.
TALT said the JO Ranch has extensive rolling terrain with great views of the Texas Hill Country. It’s also located in one of the fastest-growing areas of the state. Texas A&M Real Estate Center says land values there have increased by 400 percent over the last several years.
Experts say the JO Ranch could easily be subdivided to accommodate over 600 homes.
Rob, Teresa and Kendall County rancher David Langford will talk about how they saved their properties from this fate during a presentation entitled “Saving Comal’s Rural Heritage” from 6 to 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 11 on Zoom. They’re the featured speakers at the monthly meeting of the Comal County Conservation Alliance (CCCA). The meeting is free and open to the public.
To learn more, visit comalconservation.org.
The landowners will share their stories about how conservation easements preserve family land and Texas’ ranching heritage.
In the case of the Ohlrich-Johnson family, conservation easements also serve as a financial tool for planning to transition land to future generations or reinvest resources back into their operation.
Teresa’s family was among the many German settlers who traveled from Germany with Prince Carl of Solms-Braunfels to found New Braunfels in 1845.
Five generations of Ohlrichs lived on and farmed the ranch in order to survive. But over the last several decades, the Ohlrich property was divided among different factions of the family. Tracts of the original landholding were sold off.
Teresa and Rob didn’t want that for their four children, who grew up a pasture away from their grandparents and enjoyed an idyllic childhood, according to information posted on TALT’s website.
Rob said he wasn’t under any illusions about how future family members might view the land he’s lived on and loved for decades.
He said it’s a “pipe dream” to think the very thing that unites families won’t become the very thing that divides them.
“I see this all the time with families,” Rob said. “It’s a big thing.”
“Getting the agreement” is tough. Protecting family land from future family differences and squabbles between siblings isn’t as easy as it seems, Rob said.
He and Teresa are sole owners of the JO Ranch, which helped to eliminate at least a part of the headache of turning family land into a conservation easement. They only had to convince each other.
“If you have eight siblings, forget it,” Johnson said.
Still, the process is complicated, and navigating its legalities requires attorneys, accountants and other experts whose fees quickly add up, he said.
Elizabeth Bowerman, president of the CCCA, compares establishing a conservation easement to the process of buying a house.
“But it’s not just a program for wealthy landowners, it’s a program for landowners who feel so committed to the land and the family heritage that goes with it that they want to make sure it is never broken up or developed, regardless of those who owns it in the future,” she said. “If they can’t afford it, there are usually grants and loans available through state-and-federal programs as well as private funding sources to help with these costs.”
To get his conservation easement up and running, Rob met with Scott Haag, Comal County Commissioner Pct. 3, and appeared before the New Braunfels City Council.
Appraisers had to legally determine the value of the property as it exists versus its value were it to be sold and subdivided for commercial purposes.
To maximize the JO Ranch’s value for appraisal purposes, Rob even went so far as to briefly form a Municipal Utility District (MUD).
“I did a lot of negotiating with a lot of people and I said no to a lot of people who wanted to charge me more than I was willing to pay,” he said. “There needs to be some forums or some opportunities for people to sit down and get an education (about the process).”
The Johnsons reviewed a dozen or so conservation agreements created by other ranchers before filing their own 40-page document with TALT.
Rob said there aren’t any firm guidelines about how to create a conservation easement.
That’s one of the reasons he plans to speak at tomorrow’s meeting.
His best advice?
It’s for TALT. The organization needs to find a new name for conservation easements that makes the concept easier to understand and better describes its potential benefits.
Rob said when he shares his vision with family and friends they have no idea what he’s talking about.
Dictionary definitions aren’t helpful, as they generally describe an easement as the right to cross or otherwise use someone else’s land for a specific purpose.
There’s another dictionary definition that might apply, though.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines easement as the state of feeling of comfort or peace. “Time brings easement.”
That’s exactly the kind of legacy Rob and Teresa Johnson hope to leave for Riley.