When John Fisher settled in the Great Marsh in 1686 he found a land filled with beauty and promise. He obtained the farm from his Quaker friend William Penn. Ten generations later, his descendants are committed to maintaining that beauty and promise.
Brothers Bill and John Fisher had already considered ways to preserve the integrity of the Fisher farm when the Conservancy approached them to discuss conservation options. Their Sussex County farm had dramatically increased in value. The Fishers feared their children might someday be forced to sell the property to pay estate taxes.
"It was our grandfather, William W. Fisher, who had the vision to conserve the land's historical and natural value. In the early 1900s, he bought parcels from other heirs, restoring the farm's original boundaries," said John. The Fisher homestead, known as Cedarcroft, is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. "It's been a sanctuary for our family for more than 300 years. As children, Bill and I spent every summer learning to love this place the way our grandfather did. Now we want to save his vision for our children and grandchildren."
The brothers were especially interested in learning more about a "bargain sale" conservation easement, which could benefit the family and preserve the land.
"We were intrigued by the idea that selling an easement for less than its appraised value would give us a tax deduction, plus funds we could set aside to take care of the farm in the future," said Bill.
One challenge in crafting easement agreements is getting consensus among all the interested parties. Negotiations for the Fisher easement included the whole family.
"We realized we wouldn't be affected by the terms of the easement as much as our kids would be," said John. "Bill and I and my wife, Cathy, worked hard to keep them involved and informed every step of the way."
There are seven grown children in the next generation of Fishers. Some have children of their own and live as far away as South Carolina and California. Bill, John and Cathy were surprised when their children expressed reluctance about placing an easement on the farm.
"Our kids love the place and want to keep it in the family, but some of them were afraid the terms of the easement might limit their ability to eventually build a house or make a living from the land," said John. "We went back and forth several times with the Conservancy to draft terms that satisfied everyone."
"The hardest part of the process," Bill reported, "was trying to envision all the possible future uses of the land. We wanted to preserve the farm, yet retain enough rights for whatever future generations might want to do with the land. Property values have increased so ridiculously in this area that we seriously discussed whether it was fair to our kids to take some of that value away. But we knew it would be even more complicated in the next generation, with multiple heirs."
The process of negotiating and closing on a conservation easement can be lengthy. The Fishers were encouraged to seek professional advice at each step.
"In the end, we're not just evaluating the financial value to our family," said Cathy Fisher. "We're looking at the land and deciding we want to leave the earth better than when we started. You can't put a dollar figure on how it feels to do something for the planet and for future generations."
October 26, 2010