Openlands: Conservation Easements

Openlands: Conservation Easements

Every landowner contributes to the conservation of The Preserve through conservation easements, known as “Openlands,” which ensure that this magnificent landscape will endure in perpetuity. A conservation easement is a legal agreement between a landowner and a qualified holder, such as a land trust, whereby certain rights are removed from the property, such as the right to develop, in order to protect conservation values. The Santa Lucia Conservancy holds permanent conservation easements on approximately 7,650 acres within the Preserve to protect ecological, scenic, and scientific values for the public benefit.

What is a conservation easement?

A conservation easement is a legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust that permanently limits certain uses of the land in order to protect its conservation values. Easements exist in perpetuity and transfer with ownership.

The Deed of Conservation Easement for the Openlands and the Declaration of Protective Restrictions of the Santa Lucia Preserve are the two guiding documents, filed with Monterey County, that identify the specific protections of the Santa Lucia Preserve. All members of this community—individual landowners, the Conservancy, and The Preserve entities—are responsible for following the protections therein. 

Which lands are protected by conservation easements?

The Openlands are one of the truly unique features of this community, for they are owned by Preserve landowners and are managed in partnership with the Conservancy through conservation easements and optional Openlands Management Plans (OMPs). OMPs are customized to the conservation goals of the specific habitats in your Openlands and can be obtained by contacting the Conservancy. Learn more about OMPs here. 

The Conservancy holds additional easements across The Preserve on areas designated as archaeological, wetland, scenic, and critical for conservation. These additional protections can apply to land owned by Preserve residents, the Ranch Club, and the Golf Club. 

What are the Protected Values of The Santa Lucia Preserve?

The Protected Values of The Preserve are important not only for the continued enjoyment of our community but also for the greater public trust. They are natural, scenic, ecological, cultural, open space, agricultural, scientific, and aesthetic values. 

The Preserve’s protected values overlap, each reinforcing an element of the unique natural and cultural history of this land. 

Take an old-growth oak tree for instance, with its dense trunk and arching branches. Not only is it protected as part of the natural landscape, but as a matriarch within its ecological community, creating its own microclimate in which it supplies food and habitat for other species. The many unsolved mysteries of the old oak (e.g. why it produces an overabundance of acorns only some years and not others) compels the protection of this tree as a scientific asset. To the Rumsen Ohlone, who first settled the land that is now The Preserve, acorns have tremendous traditional value, thus endowing the oak with cultural significance. Finally, few would disagree with the notion that the oak’s beauty calls for its aesthetic and scenic preservation.

What activities are allowed in the Openlands? 

The comprehensive protections of the Openlands create a buffer between development on the Homelands and the natural quality of the Wildlands, maintaining the privacy of Preserve residents and sustaining a healthy and vibrant environment. Similar to a national park, The Preserve’s long-term protection is contingent on limiting negative impacts.

The Openlands are not off-limits. Landowners are encouraged to enjoy them in conservation-compatible ways.  There is so much you can do in the Openlands, including the following:

  • Hiking, observing wildlife, painting, photography, and journaling
  • Wildlife camera trapping and other scientific monitoring tools in partnership with the Conservancy
  • Partnership with the Conservancy’s Conservation Grazing Program to support the health of The Preserve’s grasslands 
  • Habitat enhancement activities through an Openlands Management Plan with the Conservancy including:
    • Restoration efforts such as invasive plant removal
    • Planting native species for restoration or screening
    • Owl nest boxes for pest management and increased wildlife viewing
    • Hazard tree removal

What activities are not allowed in the Openlands? 

Certain activities that may be permitted in other rural areas or on nearby public lands may not be allowed on The Preserve due to the potential impacts on the Protected Values. When in doubt, contact the Conservancy to see if your proposed activity is permitted in the Openlands.

While not an exhaustive list, activities that are not allowed in the Openlands include:

  • Any activity that threatens the Protected Values of The Preserve
  • Residential, commercial, or industrial use
  • Mineral exploration or development
  • Disposal of construction materials, waste, or non-native vegetation
  • Use of motorized vehicles on unimproved roads, trails, or off-road
  • Operation, use, or storage of any trailer, camper, motor home, recreational vehicle, truck, boat, inoperable automobile, or similar vehicle or equipment 
  • Water development
  • Agricultural use
  • Native vegetation removal, unless authorized in writing from the Conservancy
  • Parking
  • Landscaping 
  • Installation of signs, billboards, or structures
  • Planting of non-native plants

What is the responsibility of the Santa Lucia Conservancy as the “holder” of the conservation easement? 

As the grantee, or “holder” of conservation easements protecting approximately 8,000 acres across The Preserve, the Conservancy is legally responsible for upholding the terms and conditions of each easement. To do so, Conservancy staff are required to visit properties and collaborate with landowners to ensure that activities on the land are consistent with The Preserve’s Protected Values. If an easement encroachment occurs, the Conservancy is obligated to work with the landowner to address the issue.

How are conservation easements upheld?

Conservation easements are just one part of a multi-layered plan of protection for The Preserve. The easements, as well as the Declaration of Protective Restrictions, are the joint responsibility of the Santa Lucia Conservancy, the Santa Lucia Property Owners Association (SLPA), the Design Review Board (DRB), the Community Services District (CSD), the County of Monterey, and individual landowners. The Conservancy may authorize limited use of the Openlands under unique circumstances. To seek approval, landowners must submit a proposal that demonstrates a conservation-positive outcome for these activities. Collaboration between the Conservancy and landowners on this front is imperative. Together, we are creating a legacy of stewardship!