Jeff Leon is passionate about keeping strip malls off his land.
He lives on 118 acres of woods and rolling hills overlooking the Mohawk Valley in the town of Amsterdam. There are endangered birds and flowers there.
And there always will be, thanks to a conservation easement he just signed with the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy.
“This will protect the land,” he said. “Even if it’s sold to a developer. Even after I’m gone.”
The Conservancy is a nonprofit organization designed to keep certain key pieces of nature as natural as possible. It protects roughly 2,700 acres of land in Albany and Schenectady counties, but Leon’s Cranes Hollow Road acreage, now called the Strawberry Fields Farm and Nature Preserve, is its first easement in Montgomery County.
Leon still owns the land, but ceded the majority of his development rights. He said the easement is like a bylaw attached to his deed preventing him or any future owner from mistreating the land.
“Basically, there will never be a strip mall on my hillside,” he said.
Leon stood at one of his home’s 40 windows Thursday, watching the snow fall over his property.
“It’s beautiful,” he said. “I just saw a red-tailed hawk.”
Leon is deeply interested in nature. He can name many of the 300 plants and over 100 bird species on his land, but it wasn’t always that way.
His father bought Strawberry Fields Farm in the late 1960s, when it was actually a farm. Until 2003, Leon spent the majority of his time in New York City as a headhunter for big companies. In contrast to the city lights and bustle, he said his land is a sanctuary.
“I’m always looking out my windows,” he said.
Upon his retirement in 2003, he tackled land conservation like another career. He learned about fringed gentian, a nearly endangered flower in a swampy section of his land. He learned to clear sections of field each year to provide optimum habitat for bobolinks and meadowlarks.
He also got involved with the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy, which at that time was the Albany County Land Conservancy and provided a similar easement program. Leon served on the board and worked to increase its total acreage of protected land, but he didn’t sign up his own property for a decade.
“I wasn’t really sure the group was going to be around to protect the land longer than me,” he said.
At this point, it’s not clear what would happen to all the lands protected by Conservancy easements if the Conservancy were to dissolve. Leon said another conservation organization might take up the cause and enforce old agreements, but documents could just as easily fall through the cracks, leaving land available for strip malls.
Until recently, Leon wasn’t confident the Conservancy would stick around. In the past 10 years, the land it protects more than doubled. Now he’s comfortable.
The easement breaks down Leon’s land into three sections. Thirty-eight acres are basically closed off from the encroachment of civilization. Sixty-four acres are open for clean agriculture and some logging, and just 16 acres are available for new homes.
Conservancy members will check the land for infractions every year.
The move provides a small financial advantage, at least in the short term. Leon’s property taxes are set to decrease from $6,000 to less than $5,000 a year. In the long term, easements can limit development potential and subsequent property values. But Leon said it’s not about money.
“It’s terrible what we’re doing to land as a society,” he said. “We can’t develop everything.”