Sacred Ground: Land&People

Like so many old dairy farms, Mount Loretto boasts the rolling meadows, brambled hedgerows, glades of hardwood, and pockets of wetland ponds that make northeastern farmland such desirable open space. This, however, is like no other farm the Trust for Public Land has been working to save; Mount Loretto, on the southern tip of Staten Island, lies entirely within the New York City limits.

The existence of this vestige of farmland and the fact it is up for grabs today are together indicative of a growing challenge for land preservationists. Religious institutions own a great deal of land. Like Mount Loretto, owned by the Catholic Archdiocese since the mid-1800s, the land is often an island of open space frozen in time amid a sea of surrounding development. And now, it seems, time is running out for these vintage properties.

Churches, like family farmers, are often "land poor," meaning that the value of their land gives them a healthy balance sheet, but they have precious little cash on hand. When I was growing up on our farm in upstate New York, "going to the bank" meant selling off a bit of road-front as a house lot. I could take you down one road where a succession of '50s-era houses represents a tractor, a hay-baler, and a new roof on the barn at the bottom of the hill.

Like barns, abbeys and churches need new roofs. An aging population of friars or nuns needs a pension. And missions change. Mount Loretto, also known as the Mission of the Immaculate Virgin, once supported an orphanage, and the children helped tend the fields and herd, as in a large farm family. But orphans today go into foster care, and supporting this requires endowment, not land. Open land and closed buildings become an un- or underutilized asset or, worse, a liability. The faintly ominous, century-old St. Elizabeth's Girls' School on Loretto's hilltop sits boarded up, an open invitation to trouble.

David Brown manages real estate holdings for the Catholic Archdiocese of New York. "We must prudently manage our assets," he says, "and if a property's value is being wasted, then we sell it." In land-tight Manhattan, where building lots have three dimensions, the archdiocese frequently transfers the unused air rights–the right to build upward from its churches–to developers planning nearby office or apartment towers. Open land in New York City is a rarer commodity; the Mount Loretto property, which has been fallow since the 1950s, is valued at some $40 million.

There are challenges to preserving property owned by religious institutions. "Since they are nonprofits themselves, important tax-benefit incentives are out of the box for us," says TPL's Erik Kulleseid, Mount Loretto project manager. Approvals can be complicated, often extending all the way to the Vatican.

And while the Archdiocese of New York has real estate professionals on staff, they are the exception. Friars and nuns aren't accustomed to real estate negotiations and are unfamiliar with preservation tools such as conservation easements, through which landowners give up their development rights but retain title to their land. "It is very difficult to explain the concept of selling an interest in a piece of land without selling the land itself," Kulleseid says. "We explain that land is like a tree: you can cut off a limb without losing the tree. You may even save it!"

"If developed, we could see up to 6,000 houses here." Dominick Durso is leading some sixty people on a tour of the Mount Loretto property. Durso is vice president of Protectors of Pine Oak Woods, a Staten Island conservation group; this is his second tour of the day. The meadow before us leaves Brown's Pond and rolls gently uphill.

"Look!" Someone points: a pair of towering cranes moves silently through the woods ahead. But these are not birds; they are gantries aboard a giant container ship. Mount Loretto is not only a sprawling farmstead within the city of New York, it is oceanfront property, encompassing almost a full mile of seashore. The Port Newark channel below brings ships so close to shore that a well-skipped stone could surely hit a freighter's hull.

"These bluffs," Durso proclaims, "are the highest point on New York state's Atlantic coastline." New Jersey's Sandy Hook is barely visible across Raritan Bay, and beyond it the open ocean. The red-sediment bluffs, striated with gray-white Cretaceous-era clay, are in constant retreat before the sea, but here, is the single point of land that still looks as it did when Henry Hudson's Halfe Moon first arrived nearly four centuries ago.

Parishioners Weigh In

"Church-owned properties, when they come on the market, tend to be treasures," notes TPL President Will Rogers. Religious institutions, as inherently stable members of a community, are uniquely able to escape the pressures of encroaching development. "Church land is often the last remaining property of its kind in a community."

There may be no better example than Maryland's Belt Woods, a pocket of old-growth forest an hour from the nation's capitol. Tom Horton wrote in "Of Tall Trees, Thrushes, and a Sacred Trust" (Land & People, Spring 1997) that the struggle to prevent Belt Woods's development caused Episcopalians around the country "to agonize over the morality of the church as developer." The land belonged to Seton Belt and had been in his family since before the Civil War. Belt willed his farm to the Episcopal Diocese of Washington and the local St. Barnabas Parish, with the covenant that neither the land nor the trees could be sold. But with retired clergy to support; mature, veneer-quality trees fetching nearly $10,000 each; and land that was a developer's dream, the church went to court and got the will's prohibition overturned.

Belt Woods became a national issue. There were sit-ins, stories on CBS News and National Public Radio, a benefit concert in the woods by Paul Winter. Children's book author Lynne Cherry, writing the story of a migrating thrush named Flute, gave the diocese an option: she would end the story with Flute returning home to raise a new family, or to find his forest being bulldozed.

The turning point came when Catherine Cooper, a member of the church and former Citibank vice president, demonstrated that selling Belt Woods to TPL instead of a developer would net the diocese an extra $2 million. "The church wanted cash now," Cooper relates, "and the money for the development approval process was coming out of their trust." The church, which had spent one-third of its trust income pursuing development for more than half a decade, came to realize that it did not need a chainsaw to free its assets. The state of Maryland, joined by hundreds of private citizens, came forward with funds to protect the property under its Wildlands Preservation system, and Flute's home was saved.

The Ecumenical Environment

Recognition of the relationship between stewardship and spirituality is growing among traditional religious institutions. Paul Gorman has been instrumental in drawing the connection. (See "A Conversation with Paul Gorman," elsewhere in this issue.) In 1992, convinced of the need to bring religious and environmental leaders together, Gorman founded the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, bringing together members of the U.S. Catholic Conference, the National Council of Churches of Christ, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, and the Evangelic Environmental Network into what is one of the largest interfaith organizations in the nation. The partnership's mission, Gorman says, is to integrate stewardship concerns in every area of religious life.

"The earth is the Lord's," says Gorman, quoting Psalm 24. "Land doesn't belong to the Church; it belongs to God. This is important to understand because we still tend to think of land as a passive resource." Gorman says that while religious institutions clearly have the right to own and sell land, they also have a responsibility to the larger community. "Religious institutions," he says, "must consider the consequences of their economic decisions on the long-term sustainability of their community and the habitat at risk."

Last October, representatives of some twenty different religious communities of women gathered in Albany, New York, to do just that. They came from aging monastic communities under growing pressure to divest their lands. Their lands are diverse–from a three-acre site in New York's Bronx to a 2,300-acre spread on Virginia's James River, but all hold their land sacred. "We're trying to grapple with a shift in thinking about land," says Sister Miriam MacGillis, "a shift from ownership to trusteeship. We must develop a very different ethic about how we hold these lands."

Al Fritsch, author of Eco-Church: An Action Manual, helps orders do just that. Fritsch, a Jesuit priest and director of Appalachia Science in the Public Interest, has conducted nearly 150 environmental assessments for religious communities from New England to California. He makes recommendations on everything from energy and land use to waste disposal and wetland management. "There's a growing awareness among sacramental communities," Fritsch says, "that their properties should exhibit their beliefs."

Conserving Church Lands

The growing stewardship ethic in religious institutions extends to lands no longer needed. TPL is able to work toward the preservation of Mount Loretto in part because both the Archdiocese of New York and the state of New York want to see the open space preserved. "Our first priority," states archdiocesan spokesman John Zwilling, "is that this land be used properly." The state's Open Space Plan targets the property for acquisition if funding can be found. "Anyone who has experienced Mount Loretto's stunning vistas and spectacular seashore can understand why it is among the state's top priorities for protection," says Commissioner John Cahill of New York's Department of Environmental Conservation.

TPL's work with other religious institutions shows that Mount Loretto is no anomaly. Just up the road, at Saint Francis Seminary in Staten Island's affluent Todt Hill section, TPL negotiated the preservation of twenty-five acres of towering tulip, sweet gum, and oak trees and the elevation from which nineteenth-century artist Jasper Francis Cropsey painted the sweeping vista prized today by the Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences. The Franciscan Order needed funds to support its population of aging friars. New York state paid $10 million to add the emerald gem to its Staten Island Greenbelt.

TPL is also working with New York state, Westchester County, and the town of Greenburgh to save 125 acres of habitat ranging from oak, ash, and hickory forest to meadows, wetlands, and a vernal pond populated by bullfrogs. The Gaisman estate was intended to house a seminary, but the need evaporated over time, and the Archdiocese of New York will now use the proceeds to build a retirement home for the Sisters of Mercy.

At Rangeley Plantation, Maine, TPL negotiated with the New England Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists to conserve 453 acres of frontage on Rangeley Lake. A local conservationist plans to rejuvenate a backcountry sporting camp on part of the property, resolving concerns that not all of the property should be lost from the local tax roll.

In Chattanooga, Tennessee, a sense of stewardship and community run particularly deep. An ambitious greenway project there got a major jump-start when the Bethel Bible Village donated an easement to nearly a half-mile of frontage along North Chickamauga Creek. The village provides cottage care for children from troubled families. "Our budget this year is $1.8 million," says Bob McFarland, Bethel's executive director. "Almost all of that comes right from the community. Giving the greenway was a wonderful opportunity to give something back to the city that has loved us and supported us for all these years."

In Maplewood, Minnesota, TPL worked with the Benedictine sisters of Saint Paul's Priory to add thirty-nine acres of wild-flowered prairie to Maplewood's open space program. Maplewood is a close-in suburb of the Twin Cities, and developers made repeated offers for the property. The sisters were torn between protecting the serenity surrounding their convent and protecting their retirement fund; Sister Joan Utecht, treasurer of the priory, called the sale "almost providential." Voters agreed to increase property taxes $26 a year to finance the acquisition.

In the heart of Overland, a densely populated suburb of Saint Louis, Missouri, TPL handled negotiations and then helped build support for a referendum to fund the purchase of a spring-fed lake surrounded by twenty-five acres of white oak and pine forest. The woods are so deep and so dense that it's possible to lose all awareness of the surrounding city. Overland Wild Acres Park had been the seminary home of the Congregation of the Missionaries of the Holy Family for fifty years until the Seminary moved to Texas.

In Stony Point, in the San Fernando Valley section of Los Angeles, TPL is involved in negotiations aimed at providing the First Presbyterian Korean Church with a proper church building site while preserving fifty-four acres of land so rugged that weekends find it covered with local rock climbers.

Church Lands and Cultural Preservation

The need to preserve church-owned lands is not limited to major metropolitan areas. It's hard to believe that a town of 650 could have a problem with overdevelopment, but that's just the case in Jemez Springs, New Mexico, located an hour west of Santa Fe. The surrounding Jemez Ranger District of the Santa Fe National Forest records a million and a half visitors a year. Too many of them want to stay.

The backdrop of Jemez Springs's spectacular setting is the canyon that carries State Highway 4 north into the forest, and it's owned by the Servants of the Paraclete, a Catholic order whose mission is helping troubled priests. Rising behind the largest of several pueblo ruins preserved as Jemez State Monument, the mission land includes mountain lion habitat and autumn-colored bluffs that climb a thousand feet to Cat and Virgin Mesas.

Rugged as it is, the land is prime real estate–similar property is rapidly being carved into dramatic homesites–and the priests need to endow their mission. TPL is able to help because the U.S. Forest Service wants to preserve the property as a heritage site. Rita Skinner, an archeologist with the ranger district, says that preserving the property would make it "another piece of the church's puzzle" surrounding the vast pueblo ruins there. Ultimately the priests hope to consolidate their mission on the west side of the canyon, convey the 534 acres beneath Cat Mesa to the Forest Service, and ensure that future visitors see no homes less than five hundred years old.

No one knows just how much land is owned by religious institutions; there are no statistics. But it is a significant amount. Sister MacGillis says that in New Jersey the church owns more land than anyone but the state itself. "We're talking tens of thousands of acres," estimates Father Fritsch, whose work with orders across the country gives him at least an anecdotal perspective, "if not hundreds of thousands of acres of open space.

"And the demographics are against us," he notes. "Our rapidly aging communities can't handle their properties." Fritsch is calling for a national conference on the preservation of church-held land. "American religious communities are beginning to confront the probability that they may go out of existence," he said, "and they want to ensure that their central ideas continue. One way to do that is to preserve their land."

For Sister MacGillis, it is a return to ancient values. Leaving her Albany conference with commitments to reach out to the conservation community, she recalls the ancient Jewish tradition of Jubilee, when every fiftieth year the land was allowed to rest. "Land is absolutely sacred," she says, "and when we no longer can hold the land responsibly, we must endow it to the future in ways that will preserve it."

Land & People, Fall, 1998
Richard Stapleton writes frequently on environmental and conservation issues.