Elections » Candidate Questionnaires

Kathryn Spann

Candidate for Durham County Soil & Water Conservation District Supervisor

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Name as it Appears on the Ballot: Kathryn Spann

Date of Birth: June 6, 1968

Campaign Web Site: www.kathrynspann.org

Occupation & Employer: farming; self-employed

1. Why are you seeking the office of Soil & Water Conservation District Supervisor?

The short answer is that I believe that the District faces a unique opportunity over the next decade to have a significant impact on the face of our County by conserving existing farmland and open space in our watersheds through the acquisition of conservation easements, and that I have particular knowledge that can help the District best accomplish this.

The longer answer springs from my personal history and my experience as an Associate Supervisor (i.e., a volunteer, non-voting member) on the Durham Soil & Water Conservation District Board, and as the Soil & Water Board's representative on the Farmland Protection Board, over the course of the past year.

I was born in Durham. My mother's family farmed tobacco for generations in northern Durham, and I grew up watching her consult with the folks from Soil & Water. I was educated in our public schools and at Duke University. After I graduated from Vanderbilt Law School in Tennessee, and worked for a federal appellate judge, I moved to New York City, where I practiced law for twelve years, working for national law firms, for the New York Attorney General's office, and for two other judges. In 1999, I moved to Yonkers, New York, along the majestic Hudson River.

While in Yonkers, I volunteered countless hours of my time with a neighborhood group which was fighting a proposal to build a 500-apartment tower on the steep slopes and wetlands next to the Hudson. Yonkers is a very diverse, mostly working class urban area just north of New York City, which has amazing natural beauty but an industrial past and a fragile economic base. The people of that city struggled for decades with regional politics which placed all industry near the minorities and first generation immigrants who inhabited much of the city. In Yonkers, I saw what happens when urbanization happens without regard to the effects on the environment. City leaders there were shockingly ignorant of the ways in which careless development can erode the landscape and pollute the waterways -- an ignorance that resulted in grave consequences on the steep slopes of that place. For me, the environmental issues which now plague Yonkers are the image of what must not happen in Durham.

In 2006, my honey David and I decided it was time to move back to Durham, and we bought an old tobacco farm, which we are restoring with the goal of making artisanal cheese from sheep, goat and cow milk. Soon after we got settled, we again reached out to Soil & Water to help keep us on the right path to responsible farming that sustains the land as well as the people on it. Soon, I began volunteering my time helping a neighbor who wants to preserve the farmland he has cherished for years by putting a conservation easement on it. This easement will ensure that hundreds of acres will be farmland forever, never developed and always open, helping to preserve the watershed of our drinking water reservoirs.

Since the beginning of 2008, I have served as an associate, or volunteer, member of the Durham County Soil & Water District Board of Supervisors, and of the Farmland Protection Board, helping other farmers across the area preserve farmland and restore the streams which must stay clean to keep our City's drinking water clean for the future.

As I have become more involved in these Boards, and spent time on water and land use issues, it has become clear to me that we must act swiftly to preserve the remaining farmland and open space in the County. We have a short window of time, perhaps a decade, during which many large parcels will pass from one generation to the next and will be in danger of subdivision and development. For now, there is an opportunity to work with area landowners, many of whom are retired and want to see their farming heritage preserved. We also have an opportunity in the form of currently very favorable tax treatment for conservation easement donation.

2. What are the most pressing natural resources issues in the county?

Rapid development is swallowing up Durham's farming and open space perimeter. These same areas serve as the watershed for our drinking water reservoirs. Development of these areas threatens the water quality for all of us, through erosion during construction, and then through the great increase in impervious surface, which prevents the land from doing its job to filter water on the way to our reservoirs. With greater impervious surface, there is less of an opportunity to recharge the aquifers, as more water flows rapidly overland to streams and lakes rather than seeping back into the groundwater supply.

Much of this remaining open space is owned by farmers and landowners who are now getting on in years. They may not be farming as much, but they are actively considering the fate of the land which has been their home and livelihood for decades. They contemplate what will happen when non-farming heirs inherit, and the land changes hands. Many if not most would prefer to see that land remain open, rather than checkered with subdivisions.

If we do not work now to preserve that land as open space, before the next big generational turnover, we will lose a critical opportunity to protect our watershed.

3. How do you plan to address these issues? Please be specific.

Soil & Water has just recently started working to secure conservation easements over this open space, and over buffer areas around our streams and water bodies. A landowner can keep the title to his or her land, but can sell or donate the rights to develop that land to another entity (such as the District) which holds, monitors and enforces this limitation on development, forever. This arrangement is called a conservation easement. Put simply, this means farmland forever, or open space forever, which benefits all of us. In addition to protecting the watersheds and ensuring an ongoing local source of quality food, recent evidence shows that conservation easements are one tool to help address climate change, as forested and agricultural lands play an important role in carbon sequestration, or removal of carbon from the atmosphere.

Soil & Water's budget does not have funding to buy conservation easements, but the District has applied for and received funds from an array of governmental sources, and has begun to work with other agencies and entities which also have land conservation programs, to start to conserve this rapidly disappearing resource in Durham.

I have been actively involved in this effort since joining the Board as an associate member. I have worked to formalize the District's conservation easement program. At my initiative, the District has joined the national non-profit Land Trust Alliance, the umbrella organization for land preservation advocacy and knowledge sharing. I recently attended the four-day annual LTA Rally on behalf of the District, seeking to benefit from the experience of land conservation professionals from across the country.

I am now leading the District is setting up its programs for perpetual monitoring and enforcement of the conservation easements it holds. We have also been working with the Farmland Protection Board to develop objective criteria to ensure that public funds are used to acquire only that land which will have the broadest public benefit.

I also plan to work with the District to spearhead an outreach effort to area landowners to discuss the current breathtakingly generous tax benefits of donating conservation easements. This current tax law, in effect through the end of 2009 if not extended, offers an amazing opportunity for landowners to preserve land by donating qualified easements to the District or other qualified entities, and to receive in some cases nearly full value for the donated interest through tax deductions which can be used over the course of more than a decade. This tool can greatly enhance the District's effort's to preserve our watershed.

4. Identify examples of how the district can best balance agricultural/rural and urban interests in regards to soil and water conservation.

Durham's urban population gets its drinking water -- and water for landscape irrigation and recreation -- from the reservoirs located in its rural communities to the north, which in turn get most of their water from wells. The urban and rural interests are thus inextricably intertwined -- clean water for the city requires good watersheds in the country. The traditional programs administered by Soil & Water, which are funded by federal and state programs, specifically address farming practices, not practices by developers. Developer compliance with best management practices is monitored by Stormwater Management, which faces limited resources for the job of ensuring that our water quality is not adversely affected when tracts of land are disturbed for development. Over the long run, it takes far fewer resources (and is far more effective) to work proactively with farmers and landowners to preserve open space forever than to be reactive to water quality violations.

The farming practices programs administered by Soil & Water benefit the city-dweller by preserving water quality, and the farmer by preserving the topsoil which is necessary for good crops and productive pastureland.

One way that we can ensure that Soil & Water can keep doing this work is to keep this space open by conserving it through conservation easements, as discussed above.

Soil & Water also serves the urban population through new cost-share programs targeted for the non-farm community, such as the Community Conservation Assistance Program. This program helps homeowners, small businesses, and other organizations pay the cost of implementing urban conservation projects such as cisterns, rain gardens, stream restorations, dog waste bins, and critical area plantings.

Durham's Soil & Water Conservation District is also reaching out for other funding, through grant applications to organizations such as the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, to implement larger-scale urban water-quality projects such as the green roof at the American Tobacco Campus. As we integrate more such programs into our community, we can move toward a more overt urban-rural water quality partnership, which will be ever more essential if the frequency of drought years increases.

5. How should economic incentives be used to protect the area's natural resources? What are the financial resources for these incentives?

As discussed in greater detail above, Soil & Water has throughout its history used "cost-share" programs to secure the implementation of "best practices" in farming and certain other operations. One of the organization's core principles has historically been that conservation requires voluntary cooperation on the part of the landowner. Soil & Water promotes this voluntary cooperation through cost-sharing, which means providing grant funds to cover part of the cost of the target best practices. Those cost-share funds come principally through federal funds such as the Conservation Reserve Program, the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, Environmental Quality Incentives Program, and the Wildlife Habitat Improvement Program, and the state-funded Agricultural Cost-Share, Community Conservation Assistance and Drought Relief programs. Those programs all assist individuals in implementing physical conservation infrastructure, rather than particular conservation behaviors.

The federal Farmland and Ranchland Preservation Program also is, in effect, an economic incentive for conservation, providing funds for the purchase of conservation easements either at fair market value or through a bargain sale.

The current federal tax deductions which I referenced above also provide a powerful economic incentive for conservation easements.

In general, the economic tools provided by law to Soil & Water are for the development of conservation infrastructure or land preservation, rather than for shaping conservation behaviors such as lower water usage. Such behaviors are an equally important part of natural resource conservation. Soil & Water has no authority to regulate those behaviors. The District does, however, have a strong set of educational programs, such as the Envirothon and Environmental Field Days. Such education is vital to creating future generations who care about the environment.

6. Land use policy impacts the quality and quantity of our natural resources. How should the conservation district work with planning and zoning departments to protect the area's soil and water from urban runoff?

One area that I have particularly identified is in long-term monitoring of land encumbered by conservation easements. I intend to work with Planning to incorporate a step in their permitting and approval process to include a review to determine whether the subject land is restricted by a conservation easement. This will provide another important safeguard to ensure that the perpetual benefits secured by conservation easements are not inadvertently or purposely violated.

7. What are the pros and cons of voluntary and mandatory conservation programs? Which do you think is more effective and why?

Soil & Water has from the beginning operated entirely in the realm of voluntary conservation programs, by providing both technical know-how and a partial funding boost as an incentive for good conservation practices. Soil & Water's authority does not include the imposition of any mandatory measures. Still, this question is part of a necessary and ongoing policy discussion at the City Council and County Board of Commissioners level.

Effective mandatory conservation programs require costly monitoring and can create an adversarial relationship between the community and its public servants. As we saw during the 2007-2008 drought, supposedly mandatory water restrictions were routinely ignored by citizens, given the absence of enforcement. Effective enforcement of such measures is a fiscal near-impossibility, and would require a dismaying "big brother" sort of enforcement system.

On the other hand, government should work to ensure that it does not undercharge for water or other natural resource-related services. Such undercharges fail to reflect the true cost and/or scarcity of a good or service, and effectively serve as economic incentives for waste. Our current water rate structure is not adequate to ensure that water is appropriately valued and not wasted. That issue is beyond the authority of the Soil & Water Conservation District, but the various aspects of water conservation are mutually interdependent.

8. What, if any, permanent water conservation measures should be implemented in Durham County? What usage goal, in gallons per day, should be set for residential customers? Industrial/ commercial customers? How can the county achieve these reduction goals?

Unfortunately, Soil & Water does not have jurisdiction to set such usage goals for the public water system, but I hope that we can increasingly engage in a dialogue with City Hall. The County Commissioners, who do not administer the City water supply, do not have a direct role in affecting these policies. However, as I mentioned above, the City water supply and the County-based reservoirs are inextricably linked. There is an increasing need for these elected bodies to coordinate conservation efforts.

The first and most important water conservation measure that Durham must achieve is the performance of deferred maintenance on the City's water distribution system. At a work session this spring, the City Council heard a report on the state of the water distribution infrastructure, which was riddled with leaks. Waste from those leaks significantly undercut community conservation efforts. Persistent follow-up is essential to ensure that this invisible, costly but vital work is completed.

It is not possible to set particular usage goals in terms of gallons for industrial and commercial customers, given the varying nature of businesses affected. In that context, reductions may be achieved by setting percentage-based targets measured against a historical benchmark. And, while it is possible to set gallons-per-day usage goals for individual customers, the most effective way to achieve that reduction -- and to fund the ongoing maintenance of the water delivery infrastructure -- is a tiered rate structure in which water is least expensive for usage within conservation goals, and increases progressively as usage exceeds conservation thresholds. The City Council took that action this summer (with provisions to ensure that low-income households are not unduly impacted). However, the lowest rate tier of 748 gallons per household is close to the non-conservation usage rate of 800 galls; only by moving the tier thresholds down will an effective economic incentive be achieved. The City might consider, in advance, adopting other rate structures designed to encourage greater conservation, which may automatically go into effect upon the declaration of progressive water restriction Stages.

According to a study by the American Waterworks Association Research Foundation surveying usage in 12 U.S. cities, average per capita interior usage was 72.5 gallons per day without technical (as opposed to behavioral) conservation measures, and 49.5 gallons with conservation. That decrease was achievable through implementing low-water-flush toilets (a 52% savings on the largest aspect of interior water usage); more water-efficient dishwashers (a 30% savings); more efficient showerheads; and fixing leaks (including installation of less leak-prone toilet flappers).

A different reference point is the goal set by the City of Raleigh during the drought, from total per capita water use of 75 gallons per day to 25 gallons per day. It does not appear that this goal was achieved, much less that this level of water usage would be maintained by the public in a non-emergent situation. Ultimately, a gallons-per-capita goal of 50 to 55 gallons per day (less during drought periods) may be achievable on a widespread basis over a ten-year period, if the following suggestions are adopted, and an appropriately tailored rate structure is adopted.

Durham could adopt and fund a cost-share approach similar to that used by Soil & Water, for the implementation of the above-referenced technical improvements, funded in part by revenues from the higher water rate structure. Local government could also provide further funds to Soil & Water for the Community Conservation Assistance Program to fund practices such as cistern installation which can reduce exterior water usage (for lawn watering and irrigation). Local government can also consider providing incentives to new-construction builders for including such features, and following other practices such as placement of hot water heaters close to kitchens and bathrooms to minimize the need to let faucets run while waiting for hot water to arrive.

9. Many Durham County residents rely on groundwater and domestic wells for their drinking water. How should the county address the quantity and quality needs of those customers?

At the risk of appearing redundant, continued quality and quantity of wellwater for County residents can best be achieved by preserving open space, as detailed above. Consideration must also be given to regulating commercial usage in the County such as nurseries and other water-intensive uses.

A proposal by Clean Water for North Carolina offers another possibility. As it stands, North Carolina has no policy or requirement that well users be notified of groundwater contamination in their area. Nor is there any formal program monitoring aquifer levels. Durham could adopt and fund a program to fund well-water quality testing for contamination and groundwater level monitoring for a number of well-owners in the County. The information thus gained can offer some early warning of groundwater shortages or contamination. The County may also wish to consider adoption of a program for notifying well-owners who live within a certain radius of an area where groundwater contamination is found.

10. The WHIP program is designed to increase wildlife on private lands. How do you think the program is working? What could be improved?

The WHIP program has not found many participants in Durham County for a variety of reasons. The program's cost-share has not been enough to prove economically appealing to area landowners, given the program's requirements, which make it difficult to work around the enrolled area. The new federal Farm Bill imposed further restrictions, so WHIP is now only available for agricultural lands and non-industrial private forest. That means program funds cannot be used in connection with in-stream restoration work. Moreover, there is a project cap of $50,000, which rules the program out for large-scale conservation projects.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, our energy in Durham is best spent over the next ten years on vigorous pursuit of conservation easements. That will preserve open space, which is the essential prerequisite for wildlife habitat. As the conserved land transfers to new generations of farmers, with more micro-practices and a more integrated view of the role of farming in the broader ecology, we will be better able to generate WHIP enrollment. In sum: first save the open space for habitat, then use WHIP to further improve it.

11. Evaluate the effectiveness of the Farm Protection Program. What are the successes and challenges of that program? How do you suggest that it be improved?

I have been serving as the representative for the Soil & Water Conservation District Board, on the Farmland Protection Board. The Farmland Protection Board, which makes recommendations to the Durham County Commissioners regarding applications for the program, is staffed by the District and by Durham's Open Space and Real Estate Division. These two agencies have been successful in promoting this program to the farming community, which is now demonstrating a swell of interest. The Farmland Protection Board (FPB) has recently adopted a comprehensive ratings system designed to ensure that public funds are used toward the purchase of conservation easements only on those properties with the broadest public benefit, taking into account the ecological value of the property, the extent to which that property is visible and/or accessible to the public, and the cultural value of that property in preserving farming diversity and heritage.

The next step is formalizing an intake and application process that ensures swift and thorough vetting of candidate properties. This is essential to ensure that landowners are not kept waiting unduly, though the process is necessarily time-consuming. It is also necessary to ensure that significant staff resources are not invested in a property which, for example, doesn't have the cooperation of all owners, or where the landowner has not fully understood the perpetual nature of a conservation easement.

The FPB, in conjunction with Soil & Water and Durham Open Space, must then develop policies and practices for annual monitoring of government-held conservation easements in the County, to ensure that the easement terms are observed by current and future landowners and third parties. The easements are moot if they are not enforced. I am leading this initiative.

Ultimately, as Durham's programs for holding conservation easements grow, Soil & Water will need to seek funding for a part-time and eventually full-time employee to perform these monitoring functions on behalf of the citizens of Durham.

Preserving farmland is only part of the equation. Land which is restricted from development will be more affordable for people who seek to become new farmers. However, we need to be ready to help them implement farming practices which will be economically and environmentally sustainable in this age of increasing prices for gas, fertilizer, seed and other farming inputs -- and we need to work now to develop outlets so that farmers can directly sell their products, thus maximizing their ability to earn a living by farming.

12. What funding issues are facing the Soil and Water District? How do you propose to ensure the district receives full funding? Are there alternative funding sources the district could explore? If so, what are they?

The Durham Soil & Water Conservation District has been far ahead of other Districts across the state in the vigor of its applications for outside funding. The District's budget of just under $375,000 is vastly augmented by the varied grant funds it has received for stormwater and stream restoration projects, for conservation easement acquisition, and other projects, as well as by the cost-share funds it administers. Together, the District secured nearly $4 million for such initiatives across the County.

As we consider ways to develop a new farming infrastructure for the future, Soil & Water can apply for grants from organizations such as the Golden Leaf Foundation to help fund this effort. Such grants are on a project-by-project basis, and can help, for example, in developing a local USDA-certified slaughter facility which would mesh well with one trend away from tobacco and toward livestock.

We will also, though not in the immediate future, face the need for funding for a new hire to monitor conservation easements, as referenced above. Given the Durham-specific benefits of such easements, it may be appropriate to make that position jointly funded by the City and the County.


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