Several years of negotiations to save the Trosello tract as farmland in perpetuity have been unsuccessful. With heavy hearts, villagers need to accept that the iconic view of that wide expanse of corn and chile fields along Corrales Road almost certainly will disappear.That somber outlook follows the Village Council’s approval to use much of the $2.5 million in municipal bonds to purchase a conservation easement on more than 12 acres of the Haslam farm near the intersection of Corrales Road and King’s Road, between the Corrales Lateral ditch and the Main Canal.
The council voted unanimously at its July 21 session to take the next steps to acquire the easement and accompanying water rights. A closing on the transaction is expected by the end of November, according to the Village’s realty agent, Michael Scisco of Unique Places LLC who negotiated the terms.
Subsequently, Corrales Comment asked Scisco whether he had given up trying to gain an easement on the Trosello tract. He replied, “We have not given up, but the expectation of land values of the landowners and the documented appraised value for vacant farmland in Corrales are fairly far apart. And the current landowners of the Trosello tract are not interested in doing a conservation easement, they are only interested in selling.
“We tried multiple creative ways to finance the deal, bringing in third parties, trying different configurations, etc., but it typically ended in someone paying more than fair market value for the property or having the current landowners do the conservation easement, both of which were not possible at the time. We will continue to search for solutions.”
He said “We exhausted our options on Trosello before Haslam became a potential project.” Lisa Brown, co-chair of the Corrales Farmland Preservation and Agricultural Commission, held out some hope that the Trosello land might remain cultivated rather than turn into mega-mansions on one acre home sites.
“While Michael is right that we've worked long and hard to attract landowners with significant parcels along Corrales Road to the program, without success as of yet, it's important to remember when doing conservation work that ownership and circumstances can change quickly.
“The Trosello tract on the market, for example, might be sold to someone who intends to preserve it. This pandemic could change minds and hearts as we stay at home and contemplate what our values are; or a financial incentive might come into play. And so our recent experience doesn't necessarily reflect the future of our program,” Brown said.
“Another point I want to emphasize is that two of the existing conservation easements here, the Boyd and Ventana Grande Smith lands, are currently farmed by Silverleaf Farms, creating a local source of food supply and attracting biodiversity to the greater village, benefits enjoyed by our whole community regardless of where the easements are situated.
“With the Haslam easement, we have preserved land dispersed throughout Corrales. These fields are protected forever from development and might in the future be farmed by our grandchildren. What we create with farmland preservation is not just open space or recreation, but intended to protect our fertile soil, history and culture.
“Yes, land in Corrales is expensive, and this presents particular challenges for land preservation here. But conservation easements are a great deal for the Village. What is essentially the purchase of development rights is only a partial, albeit significant, cost compared to the entire value of the land.
“The remaining interest stays with the landowner, monitored by a land trust —in our case New Mexico Land Conservancy— to ensure that the land stays protected. This means that the Village isn’t required to maintain or improve the land while benefiting from open space, wildlife habitat, a local food supply and historical relevance. Residential development that would occur otherwise is expensive for the Village to provide for, such as in the case of emergency services.”
By state law, the general obligation bonds approved by Corrales voters in March 2018 for conservation easements must be used by March 2022. The Haslam easement will use at least $960,000.
Scisco said July 28 no other easement proposals are ready to go to the council. “We have a couple preliminary opportunities, but with COVID, getting them to the next phase has proven difficult.”
Earlier this summer, the U.S. House of Representatives approved permanent funding of $900 million a year to the Land and Water Conservation Fund. But Scisco explained none of that could go for programs like that in Corrales. “Funding for private land conservation is scarce. Remember that conservation easements do not typically allow for public access. Land and Water Conservation Fund monies are for municipal purchases for parks and other accessible open space by the public.”
And while grants from the U.S.Department of Agriculture were crucial for starting Corrales’ farmland preservation program, more help from that agency is not likely, he said.
“USDA is always an option, but it is very competitive. The land trusts in New Mexico typically have two to three waiting lists for projects, and USDA over the years has shown less appetite for funding three to 10 acres in Corrales at $80,000 to $100,000/acre than funding thousands of acres on ranches at $200-$600 per acre.
“Also, the USDA program only gets about $900,000 a year, which can be used up in just one or two projects. Involving USDA also takes what could be a four- to six-month process of completing the conservation easement and turning it into a 12- to 18-month process to complete the easement.
“Our issue is not available funding, it is landowner interest… hopefully your article will help with that,” Scisco said. “Of the now eight conservation easements for preservation of open space and farmland located in the village, the Haslam project is the second largest in terms of protecting acreage.”
He explained what he has done to encourage other landowners to apply for the Village’s farmland preservation program. “During the past 14 months of our work to sign up landowners for this program, I spoke with over a dozen landowners. This [Haslam] project was the only one that committed to moving forward in that time period.”
That outreach included a mailing to all landowners who own at least acres of land in Corrales, as well as a targeted mailing to all landowners who own at least three acres of land along or near Corrales Road. “I understand there were a few questions from members of the public about ‘why aren’t there any projects along Corrales Road where the public can see them?’ We reached out directly to four landowners of significant property along Corrales Road, had meetings with them and could not convince them to sign up for the program,” he said. This is a voluntary program, we can’t force people to participate.
“I also want to make it clear we made a strong effort to enter Trosello fields into this program, but were not successful due to land valuation differences between what the Village could legally pay and what the landowner wanted. “I want to make clear that the bond funding cannot be used to purchase property, only interests in property such as conservation easements. This has been determined by legal review.”