Inquirer: Seeking to balance conservation and development
As president of Natural Lands Trust, serving Southeastern Pennsylvania and South Jersey, Molly Morrison fights to balance conservation and “appropriate” development. From her office on a preserve in Media, Morrison, 58, works with community groups to identify “priority landscapes,” acquire easements, and link people and nature.
Born in Phoenixville, she lives in Thornbury. Her bachelor’s degree in English is from Ursinus College; her master’s is in communications from Syracuse University.
She worked briefly in the Colonial School District, then at the Brandywine Valley Association, a watershed-protection group. Before joining the nonprofit lands trust in 2000, she was planning director for Chester County’s Board of Commissioners. In this edited conversation with staff writer Michael Matza, she talks about the psychic benefits of open space, and a recent study that shows economic advantages, too.
Question: How does NLT protect land?
Molly Morrison: A landowner has a choice. We try to present them with an alternative to development. . . . We try to bring money to the transaction, [offering] compensation from zero to 100 percent. If it’s less than 100 percent, the owner gets a tax benefit for having made a contribution. . . . Landowners are as different as people. For some, the desire to protect the land is so strong they are willing to give a contribution. I don’t mean give away the land. But if they [agree to] a conservation easement that restricts its use to farmland [for example], they essentially are giving away value. That is why they get a tax deduction.
Q: What are some of NLT’s achievements?
Morrison: The first deal NLT did, in the early ’60s, was to acquire what is now the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge in Tinicum . . . where dredge spoils from the Delaware River were to go. . . . Because of its ecological significance, it needed an advocate.
Q: Is environmental protection a local tradition?
Morrison: The Philadelphia region has a culture of advocating for all types of land – agricultural, open spaces, forests – and public funding. [Governments] in Southeastern Pennsylvania have risen to the occasion for the last 20 years by voting to tax themselves and spend the money on open-space protection. Probably 60 to 70 municipalities have open-space funding programs.
Q: Amid austerity, can we afford the luxury of preserving open space?
Morrison: “Return on Environment,” [a report released in November and commissioned by] the Pennsylvania Economy League and the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, quantified what all of us in this line of work have believed for years: Investment in open space is more than just an investment in something pretty. It is an economic driver . . . for real estate values relative to proximity to open space. [The report said that although homes closest to natural amenities enjoy the greatest advantages, preserved open space adds an average of $10,000 to every home in Southeastern Pennsylvania.]
Q: How do municipalities acquire open space?
Morrison: Townships learn [they can leverage] even a small amount of money. . . . They underwrite the cost of the transaction, not the cost of the land. . . . Title searches, appraisals, real dollars that have to be shelled out. Then NLT [applies] for funding to the county ag programs [and other funds] earmarked for land protection. . . . We have had landowners willing to donate a conservation easement, but there are probably $15,000 of [associated] costs. Someone has to eat that.
Q: Can the interests of developers and conservationists overlap?
Morrison: Yes, efforts to preserve open space are not antidevelopment. Certain spaces should be protected. . . . At the same time, to balance [housing and shopping] needs, we have to identify areas where development can and should occur.
Q: Is fracking an environmental threat?
Morrison: In the short term, there will be significant impacts. . . . We certainly don’t want to repeat the legacy of coal mining.
Q: How do you come by your love of the land?
Morrison: My grandparents were farmers in West Vincent Township. One hundred acres of cattle and crops. . . . My childhood [was spent] milking cows, gathering eggs, going to the cherry tree for pies. . . . I walked that property, drank from the springhouse . . . and made a connection to the land.
Q: What do you think of Chester County’s explosive growth?
Morrison: Chester County has some of the best agricultural land. Class 1 and 2 . . . the best unirrigated soil in the U.S. A resource that, if it gets paved over, is unavailable to produce [food], to contribute to the economy. . . . Do I regret that some places in Chester County have not been protected? Yes, but I think the key is to be thoughtful moving forward. To protect the best resources . . . and make the necessary accommodations for housing, commerce, and industry. There is no either/or about this.