Land Protection, Supporting MALT

Recent Press Coverage: Questions and Answers

October 9, 2020

Recent press coverage about MALT has raised questions and concerns for many of you. We want you to rest assured that MALT continues to be the local non-profit that you love, an organization that takes very seriously farmland protection, fiscal prudence, transparency with funders and applicant privacy. In what follows, please find some of the more frequently asked questions we’ve received in recent weeks regarding recent press.

Who is this disappointed applicant and was his application consistent with MALT policies and practices?

In 2015, MALT received an unconventional conservation easement application from an aspiring West Marin landowner. The applicant had no agricultural experience and lacked sufficient funds to purchase the ranch he applied to have MALT protect. It appeared to MALT that this applicant was effectively asking MALT to buy him a ranch. For a number of reasons, it was not an approach we could consider. After MALT determined it could not move forward with this application, the applicant began threatening the organization with meritless legal actions and recently approached the media. Read more about the background of this situation here.

Could MALT have done the deal this applicant was asking for?

No. This applicant had no agricultural experience, and MALT’s policies prioritize purchasing easements from experienced agriculturalists due to our mission as an agricultural land trust. This applicant indicated that he could only contribute roughly 25% of the purchase price for the ranch he had applied to protect and that he expected MALT to cover the remaining funds needed to purchase the property, which again goes against MALT’s practices. In general, MALT considers easement applications from individuals who either already own the land in question or are in contract to purchase the property. He also suggested donating all but roughly 5% of the ranch to MALT as land that MALT would then be responsible to manage. This proposition was untenable both because MALT is not a landowner and because, due to zoning restrictions, that property could not be subdivided to accommodate this proposed ownership structure.

How does MALT fund the purchase of agricultural conservation easements?

MALT leverages public funding alongside private donations to purchase the development rights on agricultural properties using a legal tool called an agricultural conservation easement. Properties that are covered by MALT easements must remain in agricultural production in perpetuity and are subject to regular inspections by MALT staff to ensure the easement terms are followed. MALT is committed to upholding transparency with our donors and funders while respecting the confidentiality of easement applicants, who must disclose personal financial information and often navigate complicated family dynamics in the easement acquisition process. All completed easement transactions are recorded with Marin County and can be reviewed through a public records act request. Similarly, any easement funded at least in part with public monies can be accessed through a public records act request filed with the agency that contributed to the purchase of an easement. You can read more about public funding and the application process here.

Why did MALT make a refund to the County of Marin?

As part of a review of easement transactions in early 2020, MALT staff noted that two separate appraisals were obtained to determine the valuation of the Dolcini-Beltrametti Ranch easement. This property was at high risk of conversion to non-agricultural use given its location. Because the initial draft appraisal for the easement came in well below comparable values for MALT projects, MALT obtained a second appraisal and ultimately used the higher appraisal to value the easement. Both appraisals related to this transaction were conducted by experienced and reputable independent third-party appraisers.

Because MALT’s application to the County for Measure A funds did not include mention of the first appraisal as a point of reference, MALT informed the County about the existence of the earlier appraisal in May 2020. In response, the County asked MALT to return all Measure A funds used to support the purchase of this easement. MALT refunded $833,250 to the County’s Farmland Preservation Program fund. Read more here.

Did the County ask for a refund of Measure A funds because MALT paid too much for Dolicini-Beltrametti Ranch?

No. MALT stands by its decision to purchase this easement and believes the purchase price was appropriate, based on the analysis of an independent appraiser and comparable sales of easement-encumbered properties. The County’s decision to ask for the return of Measure A funds used to purchase this easement was based on a process issue, not on the question of whether the easement was properly valued.

Why does MALT get drafts of its appraisals?

Draft appraisals are integral to the valuation process for conservation easements. Because these easements are based on complex terms that are unique to each property, its specific value, and the sales prices of recent comparable easement-encumbered properties, it is standard practice for the party that commissioned the appraisal (MALT) to go back and forth several times with an appraiser to ensure the terms of the easement have been accurately captured in the appraisal. Until an appraisal is submitted to MALT in its final form, it is considered a draft appraisal.

Does MALT have the ability to inflate easement valuations?

No. The value of an easement is always set by an independent, third-party appraiser. The landowner can then choose to sell the easement at that price or decline MALT’s purchase offer. Landowners also have the option of working with MALT to refine the terms of an easement (such as eliminating development rights for additional homes sites, for example), which can lead to a change in the final value of the easement.

Did MALT inflate the easement value for Dolcini-Beltrametti Ranch?

No. While the recent Bohemian article implied that MALT had somehow made an appraisal match a Measure A application, that is just not accurate. $1,600,000 was listed on the Measure A application, not $1,666,500 as stated in this article. $1,600,000 was included in the application as an estimate before an appraisal was completed, that figure is based on 50% of the sale price of the land. Once an appraisal was completed, MALT revised the figure in the Measure A application to reflect the value of the easement as determined by the appraiser: $1,666,500.

Did Sam Dolcini negotiate an easement for the Dolcini-Beltrametti Ranch?

It is correct that Sam Dolcini negotiated the specifics of the easement for Dolcini-Beltrametti Ranch with MALT staff. While board members are the decision-makers in easement transactions, MALT staff determine easement terms and ensure they are accurately captured in the appraised easement value. As such, Mr. Dolcini worked directly with MALT staff, but had no involvement with the board in conducting these conversations. In his role as a board member, Mr. Dolcini followed MALT’s conflict of interest policy, which means he did not participate in board deliberations on the Dolcini-Beltrametti easement or vote on whether to purchase the easement.

MALT further strengthened its conflict of interest policy in 2019 to prevent the organization from acquiring easements from board members and their families to avoid any appearance of impropriety or inadvertent conflicts.

Do MALT board members benefit more than other landowners when they sell easements?

No. Easement valuations are set by independent appraisers based on a number of factors. In 2019, MALT updated its conflict of interest policy to prohibit transactions with sitting board members — and/or their immediate family members — during their terms of service on the board. When, in rare cases prior to 2019, easements were purchased from sitting members of the board, the board members recused themselves from discussion and voting on the matter.

West Marin has been ranched by what started as a small group of immigrant families since the mid-1800s. These families now have several branches, some of which are distantly related and maintain no financial connections despite sharing a surname. So while a superficial review of MALT transactions may make it appear that a small number of families have benefited from the process of selling easements to MALT, the reality is that these transactions have been conducted with dozens of distinct ranching families.

Who benefits from the purchase of MALT easements?

MALT purchases conservation easements because permanently protecting the land from development has tremendous public benefits, immediate and long term. MALT fairly compensates landowners for the decrease in value of their property that comes with extinguishing development rights forever. The capital from a conservation easement transaction benefits the landowner and their family in an immediate way. What we often observe is a reinvestment of funds into the sustainability of the agricultural operation itself and infrastructure improvements.

But that is just the beginning of the story. Once a conservation easement is in place on a property, MALT staff and the farmers and ranchers really get to work, managing the land to sequester carbon, protect and improve creeks and streams, and implement cutting-edge and sustainable agricultural practices. What does this mean for the public, for Marin County residents? It means climate change mitigation, clean waterways, healthy ecosystems, protected habitat for native fish and wildlife, and scenic vistas. MALT easements also require continued agriculture, regardless of who owns the land in the future. For communities near and far this translates to continued access to healthy local produce, ethically-raised meats, climate-conscious wool products and world-famous cheese.

Why did Jamison Watts and Jeff Stump leave MALT?

Jamison and Jeff each made independent decisions to leave MALT for personal reasons. We appreciate their many contributions to MALT over the years.