JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – A diverse community of more than 900 homeowners came together to protect a 27.4 acre park on the Chattahoochee River with a conservation easement. The conservation easement will protect the neighborhood park — and the natural beauty, crucial water quality, and wildlife and fisheries habitat on one of the south’s most bio-diverse watersheds.
The Rivermont Community Association made official the conservation easement agreement with Georgia Land Trust on Dec. 20, when the signed agreement was filed at the Fulton County courthouse. The agreement protects in perpetuity the neighborhood’s Chattahoochee riverside park from development.
The forested park located off Barnwell Road is a natural picnic area on a picturesque bend in the Chattahoochee River. With easy access to the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area and the walking trails of the Jones Bridge National Recreation Area, the Rivermont Park has long been a favorite family gathering spot for residents of the 920-member Rivermont community. Amid the bottomland hardwood and mixed pine-oak-hickory forest, the park has a canoe launch, barbecue grills, exercise stations, a children’s playground and picnic tables and park benches.
More than the required 66.7 percent of the homeowners voted yes to the conservation easement agreement, as co-owners of the park, said Janet Busse, board of directors member and park chairman, who initiated the conservation easement project.
The conservation easement is a legal agreement between a landowner (easement donor) and a qualified conservation organization (easement holder) in which the owner voluntarily agrees to restrict the type of development that can occur on the land. A conservation easement agreement allows the landowner to preserve the property’s conservation and historic values, as defined by federal tax code, while allowing for traditional land use patterns, which in this case are scenic and recreational.
In a conservation easement agreement, the landowner retains ownership of the property, but “donates” the development value as a conservation easement donor to a land trust. As holder of the conservation easement, Georgia Land Trust documented the land’s current status in an 85-page baseline documentation report and will monitor the easement at least annually to assure compliance with the easement’s restrictions.
Conservation easement donations can reduce estate, income and property taxes for the landowner, but tax incentives were not the primary driver for the Rivermont Community Association.
“Rivermont is a subdivision that wants our park to remain a green space as opposed to it being developed,” Busse said.
She said the Rivermont community subdivision was incorporated in 1974 as an eco-friendly neighborhood. As the subdivision was developed with single-family homes, condominiums and cluster homes, structures were situated with an eye toward minimal footprints and tree cutting, “largely leaving a canopy of trees intact on the lots.”
The accomplishment of protecting the park belongs to “Rivermont homeowners who voted to give up the prospect of commercial development of this property in favor of keeping it in its very beautiful natural state, and to the board of directors who have supported the project from its inception,” said 14-year Rivermont community resident John Kohler, who is a former board of directors member and former park chairman.
The project to protect the neighborhood park with a conservation easement began in late spring of 2009 by Busse, who soon found Georgia Land Trust’s Josh Holmes, program director for Alabama and northwest Georgia for the state-certified land trust. Holmes answered questions and guided the group through the process. After the Rivermont board approved of the idea of the conservation easement, a town hall meeting was held, which Holmes attended.
A committee including Busse, Kohler, Shirlee McKinnon, Bob Ayers, Holly Hollister, Jim Medlin and Herb Schall worked to get the vote in after ballots were mailed out.
“Over 50 percent of the votes came in on the first mailing of the ballot. After that, Shirlee, Holly, John and I collected ballots at entrances in high heat and eventually spent weekends walking door to door to collect ballots from those who forgot to mail them in,” Busse said.
Kohler gives credit to the “unfailing commitment of Janet Busse, our current park chair,” for the conservation easement becoming reality.
“Many of us thought this would be a good idea, but it took true dedication, dogged determination, and many days of going door to door to actually secure the votes needed to make it a reality. Janet did the research, drew up a plan of action and corralled and prodded all of us who shared this goal to make it happen,” Kohler said. “Our park is a very special place. I am proud of our community for taking this step.”
Georgia Land Trust Executive Director Katherine Eddins said the Rivermont Community Association may be the largest group of landowners to come together to do one conservation easement with Georgia Land Trust. “That and the beauty of this park and the importance of this watershed make this conservation easement special,” Eddins said. “The easement protects more than 1,500 feet of frontage on the Chattahoochee River, which is a high priority and bio-diverse watershed, plus about 700 feet of streamside frontage, protection that benefits the entire community, county and state with improved water quality, and wildlife and fisheries habitat.”