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Susie and Eliot Clarke: Leading by Example

It is with deep sadness that we acknowledge the passing of Eliot Clarke. Eliot was a strong supporter of the DLC and land conservation. He will be greatly missed by the Millbrook community.

Susie and Eliot Clarke, longtime Millbrook residents and owners of Lithgow Deer Farm, made a substantial gift to the Dutchess Land Conservancy in the form of low-cost basis stock. The DLC’s Tara Kelly sat down with Eliot to talk about this financial instrument, how it benefited him, the community, and his hope to inspire others to protect the land of Dutchess County.

EC: I think it is the duty of people who have a large amount of land to protect it. Parts of Upperville, Virginia, the West, and California are pretty nice, but I think this is one of the most beautiful parts of America. In addition, I think the DLC is a good thing to support. For me, it has a lot of advantages because when we bought this place the land was inexpensive. But when people came along paying $35,000 an acre, we could see what would happen to our estate taxes if our land was assessed.

TK: Let’s talk about the low-cost basis stock. Many of our donors don’t take advantage of this mechanism.

EC: The stock markets are up a lot in the last ten years, and a lot more over the last thirty. When you have holdings of stock that become very valuable and represent 15% to 30% of your portfolio, common sense tells you to reduce these percentages. But, if you sell them you’re going to be stuck with very large [capital gains] tax. So, the idea of giving appreciated stocks to the DLC is important. It helps finance the organization [which receives current market value of the stock] and also provides a tax benefit to you [a full tax deduction without capital gains].It’s the same with land. We have a large amount invested here and Susie and I decided it was foolish [for the children] to be stuck with an unbelievable inheritance tax. We had to find a way to [lessen the burden]. So, when we decided to sell 300 acres across the road, we put all the land we sold into the Dutchess Land Conservancy. It kept the land from being developed.

TK: How did you first come to Millbrook?

EC: I first came to Millbrook in 1950. I was asked by a lovely girl from Bennett College. I drove down from Harvard with two friends when the Mass Pike was only half completed. It took us seven to eight hours. Now, it takes three. I thought it was really pretty country. Then, I found out I knew a lot of people here. I rented my first house in 1957 and now I’ve been here a long time.

TK: Let’s talk about the land a little bit. When you bought it, was it all in agricultural use?

EC: Yes. There was, however, a plan to make it into a golf course, just like Silo Ridge.

TK: There was a plan to develop it?

EC: Yes. That was the idea behind the golf course. There was no DLC back then. You could see the developments coming up along south of here. Poughkeepsie was growing, and there was a lot of fear, particularly in that period in 1967, that [the area] was going to be overwhelmed by development. Kent Leavitt was the one who figured out land conservation, but it hadn’t been done anywhere yet except in Brandywine, Pennsylvania and no one knew much about it. He said, “We can do this,” and got Leslie [Barclay], his wife’s niece, to get it going.

TK: I want to talk a little more about what you’ve done with the land. Notably, you created a deer farm…

EC: When I came here there were a lot of farms and it was easy to rent land. Four or five [farmers] came around interested in leasing our land. A landowner gets tax abatements if he’s in farming, so that was the obvious thing to do and support the farming community. The beagle club wanted to lease thirty acres out back to run their dogs. Alex Ewing was raising Polled Herefords and he put them around the house.

TK: So, when did you start the deer?

EC: [When I was growing up], my father had cows and goats on a big farm. I knew [farming] took labor, was expensive, and lost money. So, I figured I would try to get into something that didn’t lose as much money and didn’t take a lot of labor. We were in Germany for a wedding and saw the deer farming. That’s when we started, in 1980 or 1981.

TK: How do you think, as a resident of this area, you have benefited from the protected land? Obviously, there’s a visual component…

EC: Yes, the aesthetics of the countryside would be ruined if you had a lot of houses or factories. The fact that [the land] is in farming, a lot of it hasn’t grown into woods. That’s what happened in Connecticut. Connecticut was mostly open farmland, something like 90% open and 10% trees. Now, it’s the opposite, 90% trees and 10% suburban and industrial development.

TK: You were among the DLC’s earliest donors. What was it about the organization that attracted you?

EC: You know, this is a unique place. It is amazing countryside compared to Massachusetts or Connecticut. It is such beautiful land: unique, lovely, unspoiled, open, with lots of farming, like England. England has very good protection of land. We don’t have that in most places in the United States. The DLC is the only thing that protects the land here.

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