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Bequeathing Property Not Just for Billionaires

This 84-acre natural area in Somerset County was donated to the Conservancy in 2017 and is open to the public for hiking, fishing and bird watching. Photo courtesy of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy

At 644 acres, Frick Park claims the title of the largest park in the City of Pittsburgh. This lovely slice of nature was originally established by a bequest of 151 acres to the city from Henry Clay Frick at his death in 1919. A wealthy industrialist, art collector and philanthropist who helped build the world’s largest coke and steel operations, Frick experienced controversy at times due to his heavy-handed approach to dealing with laborers. Yet, in death, he left a legacy that provides another perspective. Through his bequest to the city, he enhanced life for residents from all walks of life.

Stop in on a sunny day and you’ll likely see birding enthusiasts on the lookout for the more than 100 species recorded in the park. Stroll by Mac Miller’s Blue Slide Park, and you’ll find children learning more about nature at the Frick Environmental Center. Meanwhile, trails keep hikers and walkers entertained. Truly, everyone benefits from this gift of nature.

Similarly, Westinghouse Park in the Point Breeze neighborhood also came about due to a bequest. When the legendary inventor George Westinghouse and his wife, Marguerite, died in 1914, they bequeathed their home and the parcel of land that is now Westinghouse Park to their only child, George Westinghouse III. He, in turn, sold the property to the Engineers’ Society of Western Pennsylvania in 1918. The society deeded it to the city for one dollar to be used as a public park and memorial to Westinghouse.

WPC protected 105 acres in Bedford County in early 2022 with support from a bequest from longtime WPC members. This property is entirely forested and supports habitats of many species of concern, including the globally imperiled tricolored bat. Photo courtesy of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy

While most of us don’t have the staggering amount of wealth amassed by these two innovative pioneers, many of us have property and possessions that we would like to leave behind for the benefit of others. If protecting nature ranks among your priorities for your legacy, consider working with an organization like the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.

Formed by 10 citizens during the Great Depression in 1932, this nonprofit conservation organization focuses on creating a positive impact on the region’s natural resources. Today, the WPC has protected more than 255,000 acres of natural lands in Pennsylvania, helped to establish 10 state parks, and protected or restored more than 3,000 miles of rivers and streams. People can help promote this cause by becoming members or volunteers in their lifetimes. However, if leaving your property to the organization as part of your final bequests appeals to you, there are steps to make that happen.

“We receive a lot of cash gifts through estates,” said Julie Holmes, senior director of development for the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. “Those are fairly easy to set up, and we can even provide sample language for individuals to use in drafting their Last Will and Testament.”

Holmes also works with individuals who want to donate real estate. “Typically, people reach out to our land conservation group first to see if we’d be interested in accepting their property through an estate,” she explained. “Whenever we accept a gift, it is our responsibility to manage it in perpetuity pursuant to the wishes of the donor.”

As a result, it’s important to be certain the property can be effectively managed by the WPC.

“We utilize a conservation blueprint that shows us where the key ecological landscapes are along with scenic landscapes and areas that are of interest to us for scientific purposes,” explained Holmes, adding that the organization is very excited to acquire those parcels.

Unfortunately, not all land meets the criteria necessary for conservation efforts. “The board of directors has to approve the bequest, and we are very up-front with people who reach out to us in advance as to the probability of the land being a match for our purposes,” said Holmes, adding that it is always sad when the organization can’t accept a land bequest.

With the nightmare year we all experienced in 2020, the WPC saw an increase in interest in protecting land. “People reached out with a focus on protecting family farms and other places they love,” said Holmes. “When the board of directors approves a parcel, we work with the individual to craft an appropriate estate plan.”

No matter which organization or company you choose to donate your land to, consulting an estate planning attorney for advice and assistance is wise. Estate planning attorneys will draft the required documents, which include any requirements you choose to attach to your bequest. It’s your legacy and your decision as to how the land should be managed, so make sure you express your vision and desires.

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