MALT Update: News and a New Chapter
September 2, 2020
MALT has been part of the fabric of Marin County for four decades. In that time, thanks to your support, we have protected more than 54,000 acres of farmland, forever. We continue to work toward the goal of protecting the remainder of West Marin’s at-risk farmland. And we are supporting MALT farmers and ranchers as they face urgent and unprecedented challenges: a global pandemic, which has disrupted production operations and selling opportunities, an extended economic downturn and now wildfires that threaten West Marin’s ranchlands.
Despite our long track record of supporting a vital local agricultural community, you may have noticed recent news about MALT that has focused on administrative challenges facing the organization. We write now to provide you with a bit more information and to let you know that you are likely to see yet another article in the coming days that explores how MALT does its work and which may raise some questions about that work. Because you are a devoted supporter of MALT, we felt it important to share our perspective with you and answer any questions you may have about the issues that we believe will be discussed in the article.
As you likely know, MALT protects agricultural land for farming and ranching with agreements known as agricultural conservation easements. By purchasing development rights on agricultural land with these easements, MALT protects the future of Marin agriculture. While the land remains in the farmer’s or rancher’s ownership, the easement guarantees the land’s ongoing agricultural use. Every MALT easement goes through a rigorous evaluation process to ensure the property can support an agricultural operation. Once an easement is in place, MALT staff work with landowners to promote sustainable and climate-beneficial agricultural practices.
In 2015, MALT received an unconventional conservation easement application. The applicant had no agricultural experience and lacked sufficient funds to purchase the ranch he applied to protect. It appeared to MALT that this applicant was effectively asking MALT to buy him a ranch. It was not an approach we could consider.
After MALT determined it could not move forward with this application, the disappointed applicant began threatening the organization with meritless legal actions. The applicant even attempted to acquire financial details about the organization by misrepresenting himself as a MALT representative to the IRS. This person continues to threaten MALT with baseless legal claims, taking up a tremendous amount of the organization’s time and energy. Despite our best efforts, we have been unable to appease this aggrieved applicant.
MALT has used this experience as an opportunity to carefully review our practices, policies and easement acquisition processes. Following this internal review, MALT is confident that our policies are consistent with our mission and national land trust standards. We take very seriously our obligation to use donor and public money responsibly. That’s why we raised an appraisal disclosure issue earlier this year that ultimately led to MALT returning $833,250 in County Measure A funds. Bringing this matter to the County’s attention, while not required, was both the right thing to do and consistent with our organizational values.
Still, the disappointed applicant continues to look for troublesome details about MALT’s operations that simply do not exist. During the past two years, Marin County has repeatedly been asked to release documents shared with MALT board members, including Supervisor Rodoni, who serves on MALT’s board in a personal capacity.
Among the internal MALT documents being sought are business plans, appraisal details and personal information about easement holders, partners and applicants. Protecting the confidentiality of these documents is of the utmost importance to MALT, and necessary for us to maintain trust with local farmers and ranchers and allow for open conversation during the complicated easement acquisition process.
As such, on August 24, 2020, MALT filed a lawsuit to prevent Marin County from releasing these confidential documents. The lawsuit is not a sign of animus between MALT and the County but rather a legal mechanism to prevent the release of this sensitive information.
MALT has too much important work to do to continue to spend our limited staff time responding to the meritless threats of a disappointed applicant. Our understanding is that this applicant has taken this story to the media in an attempt to punish MALT for not advancing his application or agreeing to subsequent and unreasonable demands. Rather than continue to engage with this person, we are opting to share what we can about the situation with you, our longtime supporters, so that we can finally put this chapter behind us and focus on the work that is core to our mission as an agricultural land trust.
As you know, MALT’s mission is to protect farmland forever and support a thriving agricultural community in a healthy and diverse natural environment. We remain committed to supporting local agriculture and responsible land stewardship.
On a final note, lest there be any confusion, we must be clear that the recent departure of Jamison Watts from his role as executive director was a personal decision, unrelated to the details shared here.
Thank you for your support, and for your ongoing trust as MALT continuously improves the way we do our work to protect Marin County farmland. If you have any questions about any of this, please do contact us; we will do our best to respond promptly to any inquiries.
Acting Executive Director
Chair, MALT Board of Directors