1. What is the Williamstown Rural Lands Foundation (WRLF)?
The WRLF is a nonprofit, member-supported land conservation trust founded in 1986. Land conservation trusts may own land or easements to permanently preserve their conservation values.
2. What is the Mission of the Williamstown Rural Lands Foundation and how have you pursued it over the years?
The Mission of the WRLF is to conserve the rural character of Williamstown; to enable working landscapes such as forests and farms; to promote land stewardship; and to connect the community to the region’s natural heritage. On a selective basis and as our resources permit, the WRLF also cooperates with other organizations to support affordable farming and housing projects.
We have pursued our mission in three basic ways:
a. In working with partner organizations and agencies, more than 3,500 acres of scenic and valuable Williamstown area lands have been permanently preserved;
b. At our home on Sheep Hill, we offer educational programs and events for all age groups that directly relate to, and support, our mission; and
c. Over selective issues, we use our voice to help the community better understand the land use issues that are at stake.
3. How does the WRLF determine which lands should be conserved?
The WRLF carefully evaluates each property that comes to our attention to determine its conservation values such as public recreation opportunities, productive farm and forest lands, rich habitat lands, and water quality enhancement.
4. It’s been said that conserving open space provides a benefit to The Town; what are some of these benefits?
Perhaps the most important is the unique landscape and quality of life that makes Williamstown so special—why so many of us choose to live here.
There are many economic studies that show that conserved land offers a reduced cost of government services, enhanced property values, recreation & tourism, and a boost to local economies by attracting businesses and residents.
5. What are the financial benefits of conserving open space, to the landowner and the community?
There are basically four ways to conserve land that fall within this question:
a. A Conservation Restriction or CR, whereby the landowner gives up development rights in return for receiving a personal tax credit for the difference between the appraised values of the property currently and its enhanced value if developed. Part of the transaction is to obligate the WRLF (or an equivalent land trust) to monitor the land in perpetuity to ensure that all the restrictions are being met, which are also binding on future owners. The land itself remains in private ownership and continues to generate taxes on the full value of the residence and a reduced value on the conservation land.
b. An Agricultural Preservation Restriction or APR agreement between the landowner and the State. Providing the farmland meets the State’s criteria, the owner gives up development rights and commits to continuing use of the land for agricultural purposes, in return for which the land owner receives a one-time cash payment from the State for the difference between the appraised value of the farmland currently and its enhanced value if developed. The APR also binds future owners to agricultural businesses, and the State assumes responsibility for monitoring and enforcement.
c. Chapters 61 Massachusetts tax code. This preferential tax program is for land actively engaged in agricultural, forestry or recreational use of the land. Providing the land meets the State’s criteria, the landowner enters into a deed restriction, commits to conforming land use, and provides annual evidence to the Town to demonstrate the restrictions are being met. Unlike a CR and an APR, however, these deed restrictions are revocable providing the landowner makes up the difference between tax rates (with and without the deed restriction) over the past five years if the land is withdrawn from the programs for development. Future land owners are not bound by these restrictions providing any tax differential has been repaid.
d. A Gift or Purchase of land with the WRLF (or an equivalent land trust that is also a 501 (c) (3) non- profit corporation) whereby the conditions for land use are established and agreed by both parties at the time of transfer, and are binding in perpetuity. The landowner receives a personal tax credit for the appraised value of the land gift.
Using the following assumptions (55 acres, 5 of which are excluded for the house & outbuildings and the remaining 50 acres are for conservation; and the current value of the property is $750,000), the Assessor’s office provided the following property tax information based on a tax rate of 13.98: Before conservation $10,485; after a CR, unchanged at $10,485; after an APR, $8,711; after Chapter 61A, $8,711; after Chapter 61B, $9,071; and after gift or purchase with a land trust, zero.
6. What is your attitude toward development?
The WRLF strives to encourage responsible land use that will protect the Town’s vital resources, such as clean water. WRLF advocates a balance between conservation and development that will sustain the economic and ecological vitality of the community.
7. We’re beginning to get the message that preserving open space in Williamstown should be a shared responsibility, not just the job of Rural Lands; could you elaborate?
Since everyone in the community benefits from the special quality of life we enjoy in Williamstown that is arguably enhanced by conserved open space, it follows that we all share in that responsibility. Rural Lands can be a catalyst and a resource in this regard, but it cannot ever replace informed decision making throughout town government, nor every one of us being responsible stewards of the land. There is ample evidence in other nearby towns of what can happen when this is not the case.
Think about it: What might Williamstown look like today without Rural Lands?
8. We understand that Rural Lands has an Interpretive Center at Sheep Hill that provides expanded educational programs; what exactly is an Interpretive Center and how does it relate to the more traditional nature center?
The Dietze Interpretive Center was formally dedicated in 2014. The DIC seeks to introduce visitors to both the natural and cultural history of the area. A broader mandate than a Nature Center, the idea is to inspire a connection with the nature of Sheep Hill and other properties as well as an understanding of how past uses and geologic forces has shaped the land of today. Expanded education – natural and cultural history programs – are offered through the Center.
The Dietze Interpretive Center is housed in the larger of the two historic barns on Sheep Hill that have recently been restored and during the summers is staffed with an interpretive naturalist.
9. Who will benefit from these expanded educational programs and will they compete with other organizations in town?
Although WRLF is committed to working in conjunction with local schools to supplement their classroom offerings, we also offer year-round programs both for families and for adults.
We regard these expanded programs as a community resource and our goal is to have them appreciated as such.
Our programs are closely related to out Mission and do not in general overlap with other organizations. WRLF also works with other community groups to offer join programs and events.
10. Can we join WRLF even if we have limited means?
Yes! Rural Lands currently has some 400 members that are generally family units. Annual membership contributions range from $40 on up, and we are grateful for every level of contribution. Our programs and events are open to the public and generally without charge; where there is a charge, there is a small differential between members and non-members.
An excellent way to help is to volunteer, which is a great way to learn and have fun at the same time. There is a separate section of the web site that makes this easy to do, either on-line or by contacting the office at 413-458-2494. We have a wide range of volunteer needs.
Or, better still, stop by at Sheep Hill, our office and property at 671 Cold Spring Road; we would be happy to see you anytime.