Garrard signs reflect criticism of Nature Conservancy

July 29, 2007|BOBBIE CURD

BRYANTSVILLE - Signs posted around some farms in northern Garrard County say "Escort The Nature Conservancy to the county line."

The signs were printed and posted by Larry and Marsha Sims, and posted by other landowners as well, after The Nature Conservancy filed a federal lawsuit against the couple in April.

The lawsuit claims the Simses violated a conservation easement after purchasing 100 acres on Rogers Road.

In May, the Simses responded by filing a countersuit accusing The Nature Conservancy of harassing them for years.

The Simses purchased their property for $60,000 but along with giving TNC a conservation easement, they obligated themselves to a charitable pledge of more than $240,000 to the organization.

The practice, says Diane Davis with TNC, has since been changed after "becoming an issue" with the IRS because buyers could write off the pledges.


"Now, we no longer request money in our agreements or transactions," Davis said. "The IRS wants charitable gifts to be a separate transaction and done for altruistic reasons. Now, we either take a loss or fundraise money to cover our costs."

TNC says it is a nonprofit organization that "preserves the plants, animals and natural communities that represent the diversity of life on Earth by protecting the lands and waters they need to survive."

Landowners such as the Simses must be willing to allow the agency to monitor the property to ensure conservation efforts are not disturbed.

TNC says the Simses intentionally placed trash in a sinkhole on their farm, changed the topography of the land and allowed livestock to graze in the Henslow's Sparrow management area without filing a grazing plan with the county district conservationist. It also claims the couple restricted access to the land.

The Simses adamantly deny ever placing trash in a sinkhole on their land, and say the organization has been something of a dictator about when it will come onto their property.

They say TNC brought core drillers who worked for two days attempting to find evidence that they buried anything other than their own dirt in a sinkhole, but found nothing.

"We took dirt from this property to fill that hole," Marsha Sims said. She pointed to patched cracks in the kitchen walls of the house due to the land settling, something they say was caused by the sinkhole.

The Nature Conservancy also objected to a burning bush the couple planted near their house. "So I removed it as soon as they told me," Marsha Sims said. "But that was three years ago. I have no idea why they're bringing that up now."

Larry Sims said as soon as he was notified that he needed a grazing plan, he filed it.

The couple claim The Nature Conservancy has harrassed them through continual phone calls, certified letters and attempted access to their land. They say TNC continually attempted to come on to their property at times that were inconvenient or unscheduled.

"We weren't putting up with them trying to control us, and they know we take care of this land," Larry Sims said. "They are just mad because we stood up to them. That's all this is."

The couple claim that TNC brings clients to the area to hunt on land that has been set up with "feed plots" to attract deer or pheasant. Several avid hunters have bought properties in Garrard County due to being "courted" this way, they say.

"They bought a piece of property over here across the road from me, and they say absolutely no hunting on it," says Ronnie Lane, a magistrate and resident of High Bridge Road who has also put up signs against TNC.

"But they put out feed plots for deer, and their own little group of people come in here and hunt. They also put plots out for bird hunting," Lane said. "Anyone that don't believe me can come by my house when it comes hunting season, see them come in by droves. It's the people that work (for TNC) and their friends. It's a bunch of them. If it's no hunting for me, than it's no hunting for them. They think 'cause their name is Nature Conservancy they can do what they want."

Jim Aldridge, Lexington's director for TNC, was asked about the hunting allegations over the phone.

"Well, we've taken people out to see the properties that are sportsmen ...," Aldridge said just before his cell phone cut out. The Advocate called Aldridge for further comment numerous times but could not reach him.

The Simses are suing for unspecified damages, claiming breach of contract as well as interference with contracts and business opportunities, harrassment and selective, arbitrary and capricious enforcement and prosecution.

They accuse TNC of fraud and material representation and ask for punitive damages and that the complaint against them be dismissed without prejudice.

They want an order directing TNC to immediately cease its "improper activities."

"It's gone way beyond making any type of agreement with them - we will not be settling out of court," Marsha Sims said.

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