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Land trust conversation makes roots in Philmont

Kaitlin Lembo/Columbia-Greene Media Susan Witt speaks with a crowd at the Philmont Public Library on Saturday afternoon. Behind Witt is a picture of civil rights figure Bayard Rustin, who worked with Swann during the civil rights movement, Witt said.
January 28, 2018 12:15 am

PHILMONT — Residents of Columbia County packed into a small room in the Philmont Public Library on Saturday to talk land trusts and affordable housing with a local land trust expert.

Susan Witt, executive director for the Schumacher Center for New Economics, spoke to a crowd of people who wanted to better understand how land trusts could make Philmont, and surrounding areas, a cheaper and nicer place to live. Witt spoke as a representative of Community Land Trust in the Southern Berkshires.

Witt used the history of the organization to teach the crowd about the success of the idea.

“This group was founded by Bob Swann, who was a conscientious objector of World War II,” Witt said at the beginning of the lecture.

Swann was imprisoned during the war, which gave him a lot of time to think, Witt said. Swann realized one of the root causes of war was the commodification of land and the ability of land to be sold on the market to relatively few people, Witt said.

“Some people had access and control of this land and it was benefitting them,” Witt said. “They had control of the rent and the natural resources. Nothing new was being built on the land and natural resources were being wasted.”

Swann watched as the land was continuously commodified, wishing it would be sold in the commons, Witt said.

After the war ended, Swann bought in on an option for a 5,000-acre farm, Witt said. Because he and his fellow farm owners did not know how to structure and shape the land, they went to Israel to study lease agreements made by the Jewish National Fund.

“The fund separated ownership of buildings with ownership of land,” Witt said, adding the social structure of the land was completely separate from the land itself, something that is not seen today.

“The fund would loan land to many people,” Witt continued.

It was from these teachings that Swann decided to form the Community Land Trust, Witt said.

“Bob got tired of watching second and third generation land owners sell land for a lot more than it was worth and get rich off of it,” Witt said.

The Community Land Trust is set up in three pieces, Witt said. A third of the trust is owned by users of the trust, or those who are directly impacted by the land. A third of the trust is owned by members who might not have land but are waiting to get some. The last third of the trust is owned by professionals, like lawyers or architects, who have something to contribute to the community.

“Bob wanted this to be a fair venture,” Witt said.

The land trust currently owns four properties, according to its website. The first property, Alvastra, was first acquired in 1980. Witt and Swann were involved in the purchasing of the land.

“We constantly have people come up there and ask us how much the land costs,” Witt said. “We tell them it’s a land trust, but then they laugh and ask us really how much it is.”

Witt continued Alvastra was purchased at market rate and the land essentially sold itself because of the views it holds.

The land trust purchased Forest Row without help from bank subsidies in 1987. Witt continued, and said Forest Row houses 18 homes.

“This area houses predominately widows and single mothers,” Witt said. “We originally thought it would be full of families. We soon realized widows wanted the community aspect of the area and single mothers wanted a safe place to raise their kids.”

Forest Row is leased by homeowners on 99-year leases, according to the website.

“The costs stay low because we have permanent ownership of the land,” Witt said.

Witt also mentioned the 1997 purchase of Indian Line Farm, owned by Robyn VanEn. VanEn died suddenly in 1997 and left the land to her 21-year-old son, who could not handle the cost.

“We were approached by the nature conservancy and told that the farm should stay in operation,” Witt said. “We eventually reached an agreement where we would purchase the land, the nature conservancy would purchase the land easements and the two farmers who newly owned the property would take ownership of everything on the land.”

Witt added the land trust has been able to make a difference, however it is slightly held back by the fact it is not tax exempt.

“If we were tax exempt, we would have to serve only the poor,” Witt said. “We want to serve everybody.”

The biggest reason why the group has been successful in the area is because it is able to negotiate with banks to get the price it wants and meet the needs of everyone.

“We can respond to preferences because we are a small community group,” Witt said.

To reach reporter Kaitlin Lembo, call 518-828-1616 ext. 2513, email, or tweet to @kaitlinlembo.