The Marin Agricultural Land Trust has hired a Bay Area nonprofit leader as its new executive director, the third since July 2020.
Lily Verdone has worked at Coastal Quest, an Oakland organization focused on building climate resilience for coastal communities. Prior to that, she worked for over a decade at the Nature Conservancy.
Before joining the Nature Conservancy in 2010, Verdone spent two years working for the Palos Verdes Peninsula Land Conservancy as its director of conservation. She has a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies and a master’s degree in biology from Sonoma State University.
“Lily has the leadership expertise, people skills and the conservation and land trust experience to further build on MALT’s successful work,” said Jennifer Carlin, who was MALT’s interim executive director and now assumes the deputy director role.
Verdone’s hiring follows a period of tumult at MALT that began in 2020 with allegations made by Ross resident Ken Slayen. He said MALT had inflated the value of conservation easements it acquired using Measure A funds in order to benefit present and former board members and their families.
MALT countered that Slayen was disgruntled because MALT had rejected his bid for a conservation easement in 2015.
Slayen submitted his allegations to the Marin County District Attorney’s Office and the state Fair Political Practices Commission in September 2020. The district attorney filed no charges. The political commission and Marin County Counsel Brian Washington also looked into Slayen’s assertions and took no action.
Nevertheless, MALT altered its conflict-of-interest policy prohibiting sitting board members and their immediate families from selling easements to MALT. In July 2020, MALT director Jamison Watts resigned.
In April 2021, MALT hired Thane Kreiner, who holds a doctoral degree in neuroscience from Stanford University and spent 17 years founding and running life science companies, to replace Watts. Kreiner, left in December, publicly giving no reason.
Regarding the recent turmoil surrounding MALT, Verdone said, “My approach is to come in and respect the past but look to the future. The way that MALT’s bylaws are written now is consistent with the organizations I have worked with.”
Despite the controversy swirling around MALT, Marin residents voted in June to renew Measure A, a quarter-cent sales tax that has supplied matching funds for 12 of MALT’s easements covering 7,414 acres. The measure received the support of more than 74% of the voters. The share of Measure A funds earmarked for easements was reduced from 20% to 10%.
“We’re just so thrilled that it passed, and it passed with such overwhelming support,” Verdone said.
In addition to Slayen’s allegations, MALT’s public support was undermined by those opposed to the approval of the National Park Service land management plan in the Point Reyes National Seashore last year. Cattle ranching continues on some 28,000 acres within the 86,000-acre seashore and the neighboring Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The management plan allows the park to extend leases from five-year terms to 20 years.
“The continuation of agriculture in the seashore directly affects our mission to permanently protect agricultural land for agricultural use, so MALT supports sustainable farming and ranching in these areas,” Verdone said.
Verdone said climate change and development are the two biggest threats to the future of agriculture in western Marin. She said MALT’s core mission is protecting agricultural land in western Marin for agricultural use. Purchasing conservation easements is a vital part of that, she said.
“That is a main tool in our tool belt,” she said.
Unlike Kreiner, Verdone has considerable experience with conservation easements and agriculture in general.
“My work with the Nature Conservancy was focused on easements and fee title acquisition of both open space and agricultural lands,” Verdone said.
She said the Nature Conservancy purchased farmland along the Santa Clara River in Ventura County and then, in many cases, leased it back to the families who owned it so they could continue farming. As a result, a unique open space and farming region was preserved an hour’s drive from the greater Los Angeles area, where 20 million people live.
“Agriculture and farmlands are really great partners to on-the-ground conservation,” Verdone said.
In late August, MALT announced that it had completed its first conservation easement since July 2020, when MALT returned $833,250 in Measure A funds that the county gave it to help purchase the agricultural easement on the Dolcini-Beltrametti Ranch.
The county asked MALT for a refund after the trust notified officials it had failed to disclose an earlier property appraisal that would have reduced the grant.
The easement of the 723-acre McDowell Ranch announced in August was completed with $1.8 million in Measure A proceeds and $1.8 million from private donations to MALT.
Verdone said that MALT has six more easements totaling 4,000 acres in its pipeline.
“A few are in the works for this year,” she said, “The rest will be staggered over the next 18 months.”
Marin Agricultural Commissioner Stefan Parnay said, “I work with a lot of the MALT staff and the organization. They’re really responsive and passionate about what they do.”
“I think the organization is headed in an excellent direction,” he said.