A real estate development company owned Sinclair Plantation, a 60-acre parcel of land located within the city limits of historic St. Simons Island in Georgia. After being zoned and entitled for 120 new single-family homes, the land was expected to provide a significant financial return to the property owners. Developing this naturally beautiful property would surely have been a financially sound decision. However, conservationists and environmentalists reminded the landowners that the property was part of an ecological chain located in one of our country’s most biodiverse and important ecosystems, an area which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considered a strategic imperative for conservation and the prevention of over-development.
The Plantation, which comprised of 90 percent maritime forest and 10 percent coastal salt marsh, was undeveloped and provided scenic maritime, forest and agricultural habitats. The Plantation borders the Back River and its major tributaries. The eight-foot difference between low and high tides influences the maritime life in the rivers and marshlands, serving as home to a rich variety of saltwater fish, shellfish and other aquatic life. The land also serves as a seasonal habitat for a number of birds, including storks, herons, ducks, wild turkeys and even bald eagles. Composed of planted pines and a live oak forest, the property’s forestland is made up of more than 20 species. Other wildlife, such as the American holly, saw palmetto and Spanish moss, live in the understory shade of stately live oaks, Southern magnolia and red maple.
The real estate development company, a partnership of unrelated, conservation-minded individuals, sought the aid of the Atlantic Coast Conservancy (ACC), an experienced land trust based in the Southeastern United States. ACC conducted a thorough review of the property, confirmed its significant conservation value and developed a preliminary plan should the partnership decide to make a conservation easement donation rather than develop the land.
Working hand-in-hand, the real estate company, local community and ACC formulated a plan for the terms of the easement. The core components of this easement were focused on six goals:
- Retain the property’s maritime forest land under an approved healthy forest preserve program
- Protect over three acres of natural wild heron and raptor estuaries
- Promote the use of sound soil conservation with a secondary focus on the protection of riparian buffers associated with the Southeast Georgia Coastal Plain’s salt marshes and shoreline, which are not only worthy of conservation but are of great importance to the ACC and the people of Glynn County, St. Simons Island and Georgia
- Maintain the property to provide continued foraging and estuary nesting habitats for endangered waterfowl and other species that populate the area
- Provide for recreational use through private hunting leases in which hunters pay for the privilege to responsibly hunt on the land
- Ensure the preservation of open space for the scenic enjoyment of the general public
Ultimately, this effort led to a tract of land being conserved for future generations, a clear win for the local community and the broader conservation movement. But this outcome was not preordained, and other properties could fall to development if Congress does not protect certain incentives that have played a crucial role in spurring more land conservation.
“Conservation partnerships are a crucially important tool to protect more of our nation’s most treasured land,” said Robert Keller of ACC. “Beautiful properties like Sinclair Plantation would almost certainly be lost to development without the current tax incentive.”
Thanks to these incentives, the Sea Island Coastal Region has retained some of its natural beauty and protected one of the country’s most biodiverse and important ecosystems, according to US Fish and Wildlife Service and other expert organizations. Similar lands must be conserved to protect our country’s wildlife and their habitats.