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Property owner donates 15 acres to Allegheny Land Trust

| Saturday, Nov. 10, 2001

After 25 years of trying unsuccessfully to sell his 15 acres of wooded hillside property in Ross Township, Allen Selz decided to go a different route.

"It was a piece of land that was probably more valuable just contributing it as a gift than continuing to try to sell it," he said.

So Selz called the Allegheny Land Trust and arranged to give it the property, which has an assessed value of more than $120,000.

It is one of three properties totaling about 50 acres that recently were given to the trust. The Ross plot, along with two others in the boroughs of Plum and White Oak, were taken over by the trust in October.

Selz's property is the first in Ross to be taken over by the trust.

All the properties, like others that are donated to or bought by the trust, will be left undeveloped so they can serve as public green space.

"I think what they're doing is important," Selz, of Squirrel Hill, said. "I think we need to conserve green space."

The Allegheny Land Trust is a private, nonprofit group.

When the trust purchases land, it typically pays with a combination of state grants and matching funds from local foundations, businesses or community groups.

Roy Kraynyk, executive director of the trust, said there are five or six other land trusts operating in the county that focus on more specific territories.

The Allegheny trust, based at the Fern Hollow Nature Center in Sewickley Heights, owns about 800 acres throughout the county.

The trust's properties are for public, "passive" uses, such as hiking and bird watching, and some are used for educational programs by schools and community groups. Motorized vehicles are prohibited.

Kraynyk said land donations often come from people who bought a piece of land as a buffer for their own property against development. But as time passed and property values rose, the tax burden became too much.

By giving the land to the trust, they can keep it undeveloped and save on the taxes.

After the recent reassessment of all county properties, Selz saw the tax burden for his land jump from $280 a year to more than $2,000, although, he said, he began working on the deal with the trust long before the reassessment.

Kraynyk said sometimes there is a worry on the part of local officials about the loss of tax revenues because the nonprofit trust is tax-exempt.

But in the long run, he said, maintaining green space can increase the value of surrounding properties.

Ross Commissioner Daniel DeMarco said the he does not think the loss of tax money is a major worry.

"I don't have that much of a concern, if it's being used for the residents of the township - as long as the public is benefiting from the land," he said.

"The township has really been focusing on more green space, and I'm certainly all for having more green space in Ross Township."

Kraynyk said the trust focuses on acquiring land that was identified as having unique ecological resources by the Natural Heritage Inventory conducted from 1993 to 1995.

"That's where we really target our land acquisitions toward," Kraynyk said. "Our idea is to maintain the best."

The hillside land Selz donated - behind and above the Bruster's ice cream stand along Lowries Run Road - deer tracks dot the paths that wind through the woods.

The area was designated a biological diversity area during the Natural Heritage Inventory.

"I didn't realize the property had the natural values that it does," Selz said. "It makes my contribution that much more meaningful, knowing that I've protected something special by donating the land."

The trust enlists the help of community groups to help maintain the land, keep paths clear and watch out for illegal dumping or logging.

"We need the community to help us do that," Kraynyk said.

He said residents usually are enthusiastic about the trust, and public meetings will be scheduled to connect with neighbors of the new trust lands.

"People are pretty excited when they find that land next to them is going to be conserved forever," Kraynyk said. "They're usually supportive and willing to help out.

The trust does something that helps people preserve immediate contact with nature, he said.

"I think everyone has their own special piece of nature close to home that they've visited and enjoyed for years but take for granted until the for sale sign goes up or the bulldozers roll in. That's what we're in business to do - help local people protect special open space," Kraynyk said.

"What's unique about our work is we're reserving land that people can touch on a daily basis. It's local."

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