The Town of Dunn is “knocking on the door” of permanently protecting 4,000 acres of land from development.

On March 29, it added a small part of that plan, ensuring a combined 80-acres of farmland won’t be developed with help from conservation nonprofit Groundswell Conservancy.

Ben Kollenbroich, Town of Dunn planning and land conservation director, said two 40-acre parcels, located on the north side of Highway B between Mohoney and Keenan Roads, will continue to be purposed as grazing dairy farmland.

“It’s basically right in the center of the town and adds to the (surrounding) corridor of already protected land (there),” Kollenbroich told the Observer.

Another combined 184 acres is being negotiated, Kollenbroich said.

Town of Dunn chair Ed Minihan told the Observer that’s the Town of Dunn’s long-term plan – to encourage and ensure farming will continue to be profitable there.

“We have an abundance of natural areas and we have a lot of good farmland,” Minihan said. “Why not encourage that as a growth direction?”

The town has worked with many entities like Groundswell Conservancy in the more than 40 years since Minihan joined the Town Board and began to lead its preservation efforts. Their role, he said, is to assist with monitoring the land and enforcing that it stays protected.

“Groundswell is a great partner,” Minihan said.

Prior to its conservation era, around 1979, Minihan said, the town implemented what he called a “tight” land use plan, preventing landowners from splitting their property more than once per 35 acres in rural areas. But while zoning land is temporary, Minihan said, easements – which leave the land in the hands of the owner but give the town a claim to prevent future subdivisions – are permanent.

Farmers can continue to farm, and landowners retain many of their rights – they can use, sell and pass the land onto their heirs or can restore it to how it was before it was developed, as long as they don’t develop it, Minihan explained.

The Town of Dunn secured its first conservation easement around 1996 or 1997, Minihan said, and as of 2019, the town’s rural preservation program has helped it tally 38 conservation easements through what it calls the purchase of development rights, or PDR.

Every easement is treated like a land purchase, with electors from the community voting at the town’s annual meeting – or a special meeting if needed – on whether the town should move forward at each deal.

“That keeps the program really accountable,” said Town of Dunn clerk, treasurer and business manager Cathy Hasslinger.

Hasslinger said near the beginning of the program’s establishment, Dunn issued a $2.2 million bond to finance the PDR on the basis of a half-cent increase in taxes per $1,000 of property value. In 2018, the Town pooled $370,140 as revenue from properties in the PDR, Hasslinger said.

The yearly revenue from property taxes alone have Dunn on track to pay off the $2.2 million debt by 2020, as it’s down to $65,000, she said.

Minihan said he was shocked that’s all that was left, then added after all the debt is paid, the PDR will be “entirely self-sustaining.”

He said conservation easements work to compensate landowners for not selling their lots to developers.

And though the town relies a lot on its PDR program funds to protect land, Kollenbroich said, it’s typically covered around half of the easement funding. The rest has come from federal grants, with the county sometimes contributing and some projects fully funded by the town.

“The (Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources) has money (it has given), but they’ve gotten away from funding conservation that doesn’t have public access,” Kollenbroich said.

With that, Minihan said the town has done it’s share of educating its approximate 5,252 – as of 2017 – residents about its PDR, natural resources, the environment and farming in general.

The town newsletter, which comes out every spring and fall, includes updates about new conservation easements and regulations, environmental happenings in the town and Dane County and the aforementioned topics.

The town also sends out informational letters to owners of larger patches of land to see if they are interested in entering into a conservation easement, as the PDR program is voluntary.

“It’s amazing what happens when you educate the public,” Minihan said.

Email Emilie Heidemann at emilie.heidemann@wcinet.com or follow her on Twitter at @HeidemannEmilie.