A conservation easement is possible at Leslie Morris Park at Fort Hill, but the Frankfort City Commission has to be mindful about how it is drafted.
During the Frankfort City Commission’s regular meeting Monday, Ashley Greathouse with the Bluegrass Land Conservancy discussed how the nonprofit organization can work with the city in placing Leslie Morris Park at Fort Hill under a conservation easement.
Should the Frankfort City Commission approve a conservation easement that would permanently ban bicycles in Leslie Morris Park?
Conservation easements can be used to ban certain activities from taking place on a property, Greathouse said.
The easement, depending on how it is written, could make permanent a city commission vote last year to ban bicycles in Leslie Morris Park, which is city property. Without a conservation easement that prohibits bicycles, future city commissions could reverse the current ban.
The hiking trails at Leslie Morris were originally deemed multiuse trails. Construction on the trails began in October 2018 after the project was approved by the Frankfort Parks, Recreation and Historic Sites board and former City Manager Cindy Steinhauser.
The trails were funded by Frankfort Parks, Recreation and Historic Sites Department, Bluegrass Chapter of the KY Mountain Bike Association and Strong Properties. Local Boy Scouts helped complete the project.
Commissioner Scott Tippett has been outspoken against allowing bicycles on the park’s grounds.
While 20 acres of the 133-acre site are protected under state law as archaeological sites, Tippett has expressed the desire to see all 133 acres protected.
In January, Tippett told The State Journal he’s against bicycles ever being allowed at the park.
“In my view, it is a significant historical site for many reasons … (Fort Hill) should be preserved at all costs and protected,” Tippett said then.
In February, Frankfort resident Nicole Konkol gave a presentation on the city’s options for Fort Hill after Tippett led a directive to instruct city staff to explore the possibility of adding more of Leslie Morris Park to the National Register of Historic Places.
Konkol volunteered her expertise to the city commission as a “friendly neighborhood archaeologist.” She also serves on the city’s Architectural Review Board but emphasized that she was not acting as a member of that board at the time of her presentation.
Her presentation focused on appropriate preservation tools for the city to consider with a focus on educating the city commissioners.
One of those options included a conservation easement.
“Basically, the current landowner says, OK, we realized we have significant cultural historic natural resources on this plot of land,” Konkol told The State Journal in February. “We want to protect those. So the landowner finds an easement holder, they sit down and have a conversation, and they lay out a map and they say: For the particular use for this plot of land, these activities can be done here and these activities can’t be done here.
“And then they make it a legally binding document.”
According to the National Park Service, a historic preservation easement permanently protects a historic property: "Once recorded, the easement restrictions become part of the property’s chain of title and 'run with the land' in perpetuity, thus binding not only the owner who grants the easement but all future owners as well."
On Monday, Greathouse said once the easement is drafted, it cannot be changed other than to add more restrictions or expand the property’s boundaries.
Greathouse said although Bluegrass Land Conservancy has never worked with a local government, she believes a conservation easement would be possible.
City Solicitor Laura Ross expressed concern that the easement could be unconstitutional if not drafted correctly.
“We have a really strict prohibition against binding future legislative bodies from taking legislative action,” Ross said. “And so if we do a perpetual easement that restricts what we do with the land, we just need to make sure we are not running afoul of that constitutional and statutory provision.”
Greathouse said the commission’s next step would be to draft a nonbinding letter of intent to the conservancy group.
“I think it’s a process we should explore to preserve the historic aspects of Fort Hill in perpetuity to ensure that those are never damaged or destroyed,” Commissioner Eric Whisman said.
Tippett made a motion to direct city staff to draft a nonbinding letter of intent to draft a conservation easement concerning Leslie Morris Park at Fort Hill with the Bluegrass Land Conservancy.
The motion carried unanimously.
Once the letter is received, Bluegrass and the city will work to draft the easement. Greathouse said Bluegrass’ board of directors would have final review of the easement and would vote on whether or not to accept it at one of their board meetings.
While the next board meeting is in June, Greathouse believes the easement wouldn’t be ready to go before the board until the September meeting due to COVID-19.