Subletter Examiner | High prices show interest in conserved land, easements no longer limited to stewards only

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JACKSON — For its former owners, Wyoming’s most expensive listing was more than a cash gem.

“It was our home,” Julie Givens said, describing a 233-acre piece of land on the banks of the Snake River that has been in her family for nearly 40 years. Earlier this summer, Jackson Hole Ranch was listed for $35 million — the most expensive offer in the state when it listed in July.

When Givens’ parents saw a Wall Street Journal article calling their 233-acre ranch “Wyoming’s Priciest Listing,” they cried.

“That wasn’t what it was about for them,” Givens said. “It was about this very special piece of land and protecting it.”

The ranch closed a deal within two days and was sold a month later.

With 96% of the 233 acres barred from development under a conservation easement through the Jackson Hole Land Trust, the listing represents one of the highest conservation land assessments Jackson has ever seen, according to the agency. Live Water Properties listing.

It could also be one of the highest prices for undevelopable land in the country, although Live Water founding partner Alex Maher said it’s hard to differentiate the value of protected acres from building opportunities.

“I think people have become more tolerant or more willing to buy bonded property than they were 10 years ago, or 15 or 20 years ago, absolutely,” he said.

Many naturalists see conservation easements as a victory for ecology. Jackson Hole Ranch, for example, adjoins Grand Teton National Park and serves as a migration corridor for 600 elk.

Buyers often see protection as a limitation.

“People are used to placing structures wherever they want within property lines. And that’s not the case in these conservation easements,” said listing agent Latham Jenkins, who tries to educate and inform buyers about the less obvious virtues of conservation land.

“You think you’re buying a property that has restrictions that, in essence, distract from value,” he said. “I would say no, it actually increases the value. Because that will never change.

Jenkins said people interested in Jackson Hole Ranch have asked about installing a dirt bike trail and a helicopter pad. Another potential buyer wanted to hunt.

There was some interest from so-called “conservation buyers” who were looking to carry on a legacy of stewardship. But most people had no idea what a conservation easement meant.

Givens said when his father first purchased land next to the Snake River, he was approached by several interested buyers, including the Anheuser-Busch family, who offered him $10 million. Instead, they chose to work with the Land Trust to put a conservation easement on the ranch for the benefit of wildlife.

Bill Givens ran a tech company in the printing industry and came to the Tetons to climb and backpack. Until recently he held the record for the oldest person to complete the Grande Traverse, his daughter said.

She hoped Jenkins would find an equally outdoor-loving steward to take over the ranch, rather than someone looking to add a “jewel” to his crown.

“My parents saw it as an honor to protect him. And I feel the same,” Givens said. “You are doing something good for the world by keeping this land restricted.

“Really, we should all think like that. You are the steward of your own little garden,” she said.

Jenkins would not disclose buyers out of respect for their privacy.

“It increases what people are willing to pay per acre for conservation land,” he said of the sale. “But in my view, the mindset has shifted to the value of its protection rather than thinking historically that it’s been stripped of its developmental rights, and someone else has already gotten it. tax benefits.”

One-third of Teton County’s limited private land is already conserved in some way. When landowners choose to put their property under voluntary easement, they receive tax relief.

Those who buy land already under easement — like the purchaser of Jackson Hole Ranch — don’t receive the gift tax incentive, but they are usually able to buy acreage at a cheaper price.

A similar agreement also applies to ranching land in the market.

The Mead family is currently asking $40 million for 257 acres of the ranch that has been in the family for more than a century. Of these acres, 193 are protected by an easement through the Jackson Hole Land Trust.

The easement was originally obtained in the early 2000s by Brad Mead’s grandfather, Cliff Hansen, governor of Wyoming from 1963 to 1967 and a two-time U.S. senator from the state, from 1967 to 1978.

Mead has previously said News&Guide’s easements have helped protect the remaining ranches in the area from subdivision pressure.

“Much of the credit goes to the Land Trust and the community that supported it,” he said.

The National Land Trust Alliance defines a conservation buyer as “a real estate buyer whose interest in the natural, agricultural, scenic, or historic attributes of a property prompts them to work with a land trust to protect those values ​​in perpetuity.”

In mountain towns like Bend, Oregon, local land trusts work with real estate agents to attract conservation buyers and explicitly promote conservation easements. At the national level, The Nature Conservancy is working to capitalize on “the growing interest of the private sector in participating in conservation”.

And with a third of Teton County’s limited private land already protected from development, buyers have become more willing to buy protected land – not because of stewardship interest, but simply because it is the only plot available.

The limited supply has effectively meant that “people are willing to pay the same price for encumbered land as for unencumbered land,” said Max Ludington, president of Jackson Hole Land Trust since 2020.

The nonprofit continues to seek easements, and Ludington said there will likely come a time when every parcel of the valley that can be developed will have a development plan and “every parcel of land that can be kept will be kept.” .

The Land Trust secured three new conservation easements in Teton County last year.

Meanwhile, Maher of Live Water Properties said the high prices are just a reflection of Jackson’s overall popularity.

“It’s a function of property values ​​in general,” he said. “It’s not that land under conservation easement appreciates faster than land not under conservation easement.

“There’s just a high demand for a very small supply, and then you have all these scenic and wildlife features and airport accessibility etc. That’s why our land is worth more than others. locations.”

Last year, the median home value was $850,800 in Teton County, according to Wyoming’s Division of Economic Analysis. The median household income was $87,053.

Ludington said one of the most common complaints heard by the Land Trust is actually a misconception.

People assume that conservation easements limit the possibility of affordable housing developments, he said, when in reality that restriction comes from local land use planning regulations, or LDRs.

“The focus of our work is not the amount of development, it’s the location,” he said.

Taking the concept of location one step further, listing agent Jenkins said it didn’t make sense to build affordable housing in a place like Jackson Hole Ranch. Instead, he said, a community housing fund should look at “downtown” properties that are within the transportation network.

He pointed to a 50-acre, $38.5 million parcel on Highway 22, just off the Stilson parking lot where skiers park to catch shuttles to Teton Village, which is now on the market.

“I think its highest and best use is to partner with Stilson and the Metro Center and build community housing there,” Maher said.

When asked if the Stilson lot might be a candidate for labor housing, listing agent Ted Dawson replied, “1000% but the county wants nothing to do with it.”

Current single-family and rural zoning allows only one house per 35 acres.

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