Ten Towns Committee
Mendham Township Conservation Easement Inventory And Baseline Inspection
 
Since the 1960's Mendham Township has made it a practice to obtain conservation easements through deeds on environmentally sensitive portions of properties being developed.  Although the conservation easements are shown on the Township's tax map, there was no file of the deeds and there was no program to monitor compliance with the easement provisions.

In 1998 the Environmental Commission received a NJDEP Office of Environmental Services grant that included digitizing all the Township's conservation easements to create a database and a map. This project initiated the following procedure developed by the Mendham Township Environmental Commission for completing a reliable inventory of all conservation easements and conducting a baseline inspection.

Project Description
  1. At the recommendation of the Planning Board attorney, Warren Dunn, the first step was to do a title search for all the easements granted to Mendham Township.  The title searchers produced a detailed list of the easements, which included the block and lot number, the deed book location, the name of the grantor, and photocopies of the deeds.  The cost for this search was $5000.

    The title search included all the deeds in which Mendham Township was grantee, which included other types of easements such as drainage and sight easements, so it was necessary to separate the data on conservation easements.

  2. The next step was to compare the conservation easements shown on Mendham Township's tax map with the list of deeds.  In some cases there were deeds for easements that did not appear on the tax map, and in other cases easements on the tax map for which no deed was filed.  The discrepancies had to be resolved in some cases by researching the original subdivision folders in the Planning Board office.  It took about a year to resolve these discrepancies between the tax map and the deeds, and with all the cross-checking that was done, it was felt that the final inventory of conservation easements was as accurate as was possible.  The total number of easements identified at that time was about 70.  A GIS database and map of the conservation easements were then prepared for the grant project by the Upper Raritan Watershed Association.

  3. In 2004 the Commission undertook the next phase in the conservation easement project: to educate owners of property containing conservation easements on the restrictions outlined in the deed, and then to undertake a baseline inspection of all the easements.

  4. The first step in this phase was to review and update the easement folders created in 2000.  Most of the Township's easements were created during the subdivision process, so one conservation easement may have been created for a subdivision, but once the property was subdivided there may have been several lots on which that easement occurred. Therefore the file of easement folders had to be expanded to include a folder for each lot on which an easement existed, and the file then included 167 folders.

  5. The next step was to inspect the easements.  The Commission unanimously felt that this was not an appropriate project for the volunteer members to undertake.  The Commission hired a professional forester on an hourly basis who was already working with the Township Tree Committee.  A subcommittee of the Commission then met with the inspector to draft the initial letter to property owners with conservation easements, set up a schedule for inspections, and develop a monitoring form. The subcommittee also drafted a brochure on conservation easements, modeled on one produced by the Old Bridge Environmental Commission.

  6. The easement folders were then prepared with the material needed for inspections.  Each property folder was supplied with the following:

    1. A copy of the easement deed
    2. Three copies of a map of the lot showing the conservation easement - either photocopied from the current tax map or the original subdivision.  On each copy the easement was highlighted.
    3. The name and address of the current property owner, taken from the tax book.
    4. A copy of the monitoring form.  Essential information such as name and address, block and lot number, type and date of conservation easement, were filled in by a Commission member.
    5. A pocket folder for the inspector to take into the field.
  7. From the material in the property folder, the pocket folder was prepared for the inspector that included the monitoring form and a copy of the map with easement highlighted.  The inspector took these folders into the field, completed the monitoring form and took photographs of the easement, using the map to mark locations where the photographs were taken.

  8. At the inspector's suggestion, it was decided to start with a small group of property owners to see if our procedures or paperwork needed any revising.  The initial mailing went to twenty property owners and included:

    1. A letter of explanation to the property owner.
    2. A copy of a map of the owner's property with the easement highlighted.
    3. A copy of the conservation easement brochure.
    4. A notification of the time period of ten days to two weeks in which the inspection would take place.

    The letter included the names of three Commission members to call with questions.  The time period notification included the name and telephone number of the inspector, who preferred not to make specific appointments with property owners unless they requested it, to give himself flexibility in managing the inspections.

  9. After the first successful group of inspections, the Commission continued to send out the letters to property owners in batches of 20 or 30, which was the number the inspector felt he could inspect within the specified period.  This continued over a period of 6 months, until the project was complete.  In response to 167 notices that were mailed, the Commission received a total of 3 or 4 phone calls - all only requesting information.  The inspector received an equally small number of phone calls - to set up a specific day and time, or to warn of dogs or locked gates.

  10. After the inspector returned the first group of easement monitoring forms, the Commission subcommittee reviewed the reports for comments that needed to be passed along to the property owners.  Letters to the property owners notifying them that the inspection had been completed were sent after each batch of monitoring reports were returned by the inspector.  If the inspection reports had indicated any problems within the easement, they were noted at the bottom of the letter.  The Commission had agreed at the beginning of the inspection project that this baseline monitoring would be solely for the purpose of educating property owners, as well as educating Mendham Township on the compliance of property owners with the provisions of conservation easements.  Out of 167 easements, only 19 were found to include some type of disturbance within the easement, most frequently a case of yard waste being dumped in the easement.  In all these 19 cases, recommendations for remediation were included in the follow up letter.

  11. The completed conservation easement file now contains folders that include the following:

    1. A copy of the easement deed.
    2. One copy of a map of the lot showing the conservation easement - either photocopied from the current tax map or the original subdivision, with the easement highlighted.
    3. The pocket folder completed by the inspector, containing a copy of the monitoring form, the photographs, the copy of the map indicting locations of the photographs, and a copy of the report letter sent to the property owner.
The conservation easement inventory and baseline inspection project was completed in December 2005.  The bill for inspections was $5,300, bringing the total dollar cost of the project to $10,300.  Completion of the project required an enormous number of volunteer hours.

The question of when the next complete monitoring of easements should be undertaken is still being discussed.  In the meantime the Commission may undertake a baseline inspection of conservation easements as they are granted in new subdivisions, so that the file will be up to date when the next complete monitoring takes place.

Mendham Township has recently adopted an ordinance requiring easement markers in new subdivisions.  Delineating the borders of the conservation easements with markers will make future inspections more efficient and accurate.

Sarah Dean Link
Co-Chair
Mendham Township Environmental Commission
February 2006

Conservation Easement Subcommittee:

Kim Crumrine
Robert Gates
Jamie Kinsel
Sarah Dean Link
Ralph Rhodes
Richard Watt

Inspector:

John Linson
Shade Tree Department LLC

Addendum April 2006

In March 2006, the Mendham Township Committee approved the following plan to educate new owners of properties with conservation easements as these properties change hands:

  1. The Township tax office has been provided with a copy of all the properties with conservation easements in Mendham Township listed by block and lot, which will be updated as needed.  This list will be consulted when new deeds arrive in the tax office, and the Environmental Commission will be supplied with the names of new property owners.

  2. The Commission will send a mailing to new property owners including:

    1. A letter of explanation.
    2. A copy of a map of the owner's property with the easement highlighted.
    3. A copy of the conservation easement brochure.

The Commission hopes that this will give the Township greater confidence in the continuation of our residents' high level of compliance with the deed restrictions on conservation easements.


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Conservation Easement Inventory