If you’re looking for a definition of “conservation easement,” Teri Ptacek is a good person to ask.
As executive director of the Agricultural Stewardship Association, a nonprofit land trust that helps landowners conserve working farmland in Washington and Rensselaer counties, Ptacek has facilitated dozens of these complex legal agreements. Via these legal instruments, ASA has helped to protect 17,000 acres of prime Upstate New York farmland -- including being a key player in the protection of the Pitney Farm.
With their extensive experience with farmland conservation and stewardship, ASA was able to help facilitate some of the final details of the easement with the Pitney family and the City of Saratoga Springs last fall. Thanks to ASA’s assistance, the 166 acres that make up what is now called Pitney Meadows Community Farm will forever be off-limits to non-ag residential and commercial development. The easement restricts permitted uses to “agricultural, forestry, wildlife habitat, water resource protection, educational and other open space purposes.”
Like all of the farms ASA has helped protect, PMCF “provides multiple benefits to the community, including high-quality cropland for food production, scenic landscapes, and woodlands and wetlands for wildlife habitat and water filtration,” says Ptacek.
But it also presented some new challenges:
- It’s located in a city.
- It’s owned not by a multigenerational family, but a nonprofit organization.
- It’s committed to serving the community in many ways that few other farms do, offering community gardens, educational programs, recreational trails, and more over the long term.
Despite some challenges, ASA saw the significance of maintaining this important community farm. “We especially see PMCF serving as a place to train new farmers who may eventually end up farming across the river in Washington or Rensselaer counties. So while PMCF is integral to the health of the city, it has a positive footprint that is regional and larger than the city,” explained Ptacek.
The multiple uses that PMCF plans for its property required a complex easement that runs 38 pages and took months to develop. The Saratoga Springs City Council approved it unanimously last November when it purchased the Pitney Farm’s development rights for $1.13 million. ASA’s continuing role will be to serve as the easement’s “third-party enforcer,” working with the City and PMCF to ensure that the terms of the easement are met in perpetuity.
"ASA is honored to uphold the Pitney’s conservation vision for the property and play this role in the project," says Ptacek, who considers the conservation of farmland in Saratoga County to be particularly important due to the boom in commercial and residential real estate that Global Foundries and other high-tech enterprises have generated.
“It’s more important now than ever for farmers to hold onto their productive farmland,” she says. “Once farmland is gone, it’s gone forever.”
AN EARLY LOVE FOR OPEN SPACES
Ptacek acquired a love for nature and open spaces as a child growing up in what she describes as the “magnificent rural landscape” that surrounded her hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Woodlands, streams and open spaces were her playground.
Then came the subdivisions and strip malls.
“I saw farms disappear overnight, slowly at first and then at a rapid pace,” she says. “My grandparents’ 40-acre farm became the sole remaining farm surrounded by ‘McMansions.’ It had changed so much while I was away for a few years I didn’t even recognize it as I drove by.”
Ptacek immediately fell in love with Washington County while visiting her husband’s grandmother in Greenwich 30 years ago. “I realized that the main reason the place in which we live in is so beautiful is that so much of the landscape has been shaped by generations of hard-working family farmers.”
'IT STARTS WITH THE LAND'
With a bachelor’s degree in Chinese language and literature from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a master’s in urban and regional planning from Pratt Institute, Ptacek became involved with ASA in the early 1990s and served as a freelance consultant which led to her drafting Washington County’s firstAgricultural and Farmland Protection Plan. She then joined American Farmland Trust in their Saratoga office, where she worked for eight years as a project coordinator.
When ASA asked her to join them as their executive director in 2003, she accepted immediately. Under her leadership, ASA has made community outreach and fund-raising top priorities, launching such popular events as the Tour de Farm bike ride through Washington County and the annual Landscapes for Landsakes Art Sale and Exhibition held on Columbus Day weekend in Coila.
“ASA is an incredible grassroots organization made up of hardworking volunteers and staff,” she says. “We understand the importance of making sure farming will always remain a part of our future. It starts with the land.”
Dan Forbush with Mirabelle Cohen