The Marin Agricultural Land Trust returned $ 833,250 that Marin County gave it to preserve a plot in West Marin.
MALT used the money to help it buy a $ 1.66 million farm easement on the 326-acre Dolcini-Beltrametti ranch in 2017. The county demanded a refund from MALT after the trust said it was it had not disclosed a property valuation which would have reduced the subsidy. .
âWe just thought the right thing to do was ask for the refund,â said Max Korten, Marin County director of parks and open spaces.
The return of the money did not affect the easement.
The county’s money came from Measure A sales tax revenue. As approved by Marin voters in 2012, 20% of Measure A funds are to be used for the protection of farmland at risk of subdivision or development to preserve Marin’s working farms and ranches.
The county expects a sharp drop in revenue from Measure A in 2020-21 due to the coronavirus emergency.
“As part of a recent review of easement transactions, MALT staff noted that two separate assessments were obtained to determine the easement valuation of the Dolcini-Beltrametti ranch,” the trust said in a statement. âThis property was at high risk of conversion to non-agricultural use given its location. Since the initial easement assessment project was much lower than the comparable values ââfor the MALT projects, MALT obtained a second assessment and ultimately used the higher assessment to assess the easement.
However, MALT’s application to Marin County for Measure A funds failed to mention the first assessment.
MALT said its staff did not include the previous assessment because it was not mandated. MALT said the county’s application form for Measure A forms requires applicants to include only a valid assessment to establish the assessment of a conservation easement.
âWhile MALT followed the letter of the county’s requirements for Measure A applications in this transaction, recent follow-up with the county was to ensure that all parties agreed that MALT also adheres to the spirit of these. requirements, âsaid Jamison Watts, executive director of MALT. .
âAlthough many staff and the board are involved in every transaction,â said Watts, âas executive director of MALT, I take full responsibility for this A-measure request.â
Asked what motivated the review that resulted in the inferior assessment not being disclosed, MALT said it was standard practice for trusts accredited by the Land Trust Alliance – a nonprofit based in Washington, DC – periodically review easement acquisitions. The trust has indicated it will seek re-accreditation in 2021.
In an email, Bruce Runnels, chairman of the alliance’s accreditation commission, wrote: âTo renew, a licensed land trust voluntarily submits to an external and independent review of its practices by the commission.
The initial appraisal valued the easement at $ 1.13 million. In this scenario, the county’s 50% match would have been $ 567,500, more than $ 265,750 less than in the second valuation of $ 1.66 million.
The second assessment was carried out by John Bouyea of ââJohn Bouyea and Associates. MALT will not say who made the initial assessment.
“It is MALT’s policy not to discuss evaluation projects,” the trust wrote in a statement.
Regarding the reason for the second appraisal, MALT wrote that âits staff and board were concerned that offering a purchase price for the conservation easement well below the appropriate market value for the easement. would have left this property in danger of development â.
To date, not including the Dolcini-Beltrametti Ranch easement, MALT has received approximately $ 13.2 million in Measure A funds to protect 11 farms and ranches covering 6,692 acres.
MALT said that although there have been other easements funded in part by Measure A funds where more than one appraisal has been commissioned, in these cases the terms of the easement have been changed or l previous assessment was obsolete.
âI appreciate that MALT has come forward to let us know,â Korten said. “We have no indication that this is a model or that MALT has done so under other circumstances.”
The county is updating its guidelines to require disclosure of any assessment work produced within 24 months of a request for Measure A funds.
âWe want to make sure the county has all the information it needs to make an informed decision,â Korten said.
In a statement, MALT said it “took this opportunity to review its policies and procedures and make the necessary updates to ensure that a similar situation does not recur in the future.”