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News: A Forest Saved

Conservation easements preserve ownership, green space

By Denise G. Callahan · December 1st, 2004 · News
Elsie Beekley signs an easement preserving an old-growth forest overlooking the Ohio River.
Tim Simmons

Elsie Beekley signs an easement preserving an old-growth forest overlooking the Ohio River.

One more hilltop along the Ohio River will remain pristine, thanks to the foresight of a vigorous octogenarian.

Elsie Beekley recently executed a conservation easement with the Western Wildlife Corridor to preserve what she calls her "little bit of heaven" on Pontius Road in Delhi Township.

"I have friends who say, 'Why does that bother you if someone wants to do something with it'?" she says. "I say, 'Well you haven't lived here. When it snows and I walk down that driveway, it's like seventh heaven.' It's like Reagan said: You don't sell a bit of heaven. It's just like a bit of heaven here."

As you drive onto Beekley's 18-acre property, you're laced with majestic oaks as the drive wends its way to her nearly 100-year old farmhouse. It doesn't actually look much like a farmhouse. After you traverse the twisting lane into the wood, you come upon a white-bricked, black-shuttered cottage that's punctuated with saucy, red-painted doors, resting in a magical setting that will remain, now and forever, unblemished.

'They would have torn it up'
Beekley has lived here since she married her second husband, the late Dr. Henry Clay Beekley, in 1972. At 87, Beekley jaunts about the globe, mainly on Catholic pilgrimages -- she recently sojourned to the Vatican to see a friend ordained. She also goes golfing twice a week, bowls regularly in the winter and works on the never-ending outdoor chores her land requires.

When her husband was alive, he shared her passion for their property. And when they weren't working side-by-side in his solo medical practice in Price Hill, they were tending their gardens.

The doctor passed away seven years ago at the age of 91.

She looks lovingly at a silver-framed picture of the two of them, recollecting that they were hard at it right up until the end.

"He just missed 92 and he looked 70," Beekley says. "He worked up until the end. I took him for a house call and I put the wheelchair in the back of the Jeep and he'd make house calls. That was in May, and he died in July."

The doctor and his wife ran the medical office his father opened in 1901 on Warsaw Avenue until she closed it in 1997. She talks about the medical office in much the same way she talks about preserving the land she loves.

She couldn't keep the medical practice going, but she wanted to make darn sure no developers could come in and deface her land.

"I didn't want anybody to tear this place up," Beekley says. "All the builders have been out here and they all said they would have bought it. They would have torn it up, but I love it and my husband did, too. No matter how hard he worked, nothing was too much when he had to do something out here."

While anything can probably be rendered legally moot, a conservation easement is the best vehicle to ensure Beekley's wishes are protected, according to Tim Sisson, president of the Western Wildlife Corridor. Under a conservation easement, the landowner retains possession of the property and puts stipulations on future owners, restricting what can happen to the land.

Under the terms of Beekley's easement, any future owners could raze the quaint cottage, but any new structure must reside in the general vicinity of the current building. The forest that flourishes all around the property must be preserved in perpetuity.

Forest primeval
The preservation light bulb went off in Beekley's head after she read an article about Bonnie Mitsui, who obtained a conservation easement for her 60-acre organic farm in Indian Hill. Beekley, in making her decision, also took a page from the late archaeologist Marion Rawson's estate. Rawson donated her mansion to the University of Cincinnati, with the idea it and the seven acres it sits on would be used by the university for a conference center or some other educational purpose.

However, wills apparently don't always protect people's final wishes. After UC determined it couldn't afford the upkeep, it sold the property to a developer earlier this year. Single-family homes, rather than educational edifices, will now live on the land in Clifton.

Beekley has saved her little part of the hillside, but what about those around and below it? Delhi Township maintains Storey Woods Park just to the north of the Beekley homestead. Her nephew holds the property to the west. The Hamilton County Park District owns a crucial piece of land on the other side of the valley, below Beekley's hill along the Ohio River. Sisson said the Beekley easement was crucial, in that it provides a buffer for the mixed mesophytic forest below.

"It's really special to have that remnant of the kind of forest that was there before pioneers came," Sisson says. "It goes back clear to the last Ice Age. That's what's really important there. It is an example, a remnant, a historical area, because it's just like it was in the beginning. When you have a remnant like that, you have to have a buffer around it. If you log right up to it, you'll damage the forest itself."

Western Wildlife isn't the only preservation group in town. The Land Conservancy of Hamilton County, founded in 1999, obtains conservation easements and some fee simple donations.

Roland Johnson and his wife Clare head the Western Wildlife Corridor. He says 50 land conservancy groups operating around the state work in concert to make sure all their bases are covered.

"One of our strong issues is to preserve our natural green space area," Roland Johnson says. "We feel very passionately about that, and I think everyone feels that way."

Beekley's neighbor, Fred Nemann, who runs a construction company on Bender Road, says he's already developed his land and he isn't going anywhere or selling off his land for condos. But he said he's a little skeptical about whether the hillside above him will remain pristine, despite Beekley's gift.

"I have no problem keeping things preserved but just don't believe everybody around that neighborhood feels the same way with a nice view like that," he said. "It's always the almighty dollar."

However, Sandra K. Monahan, Delhi Township's parks and recreation director, disagrees. She says Beekley isn't necessarily in the minority; many people don't want to see their past paved over.

"People take pride in their property and they are not really excited about turning it over to a developer," Monahan says. "It's their way of protecting their homestead." ©



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