Falling land values create conservation opportunities

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(Host) States are facing tough decisions about where to invest their shrinking budgets. In most cases protecting open space is not at the top of the list.

But the downturn in the economy has also meant, in some places, a drop in land values. 

As part of a collaboration with Northeast public radio stations Nancy Cohen from WNPR in Hartford reports that’s creating new opportunities to preserve land and curb development.

(Cohen) Suzanne Rockett always imagined  living close to nature. In 1996 she bought 108 acres on the side of a mountain in the Massachusetts Berkshires, bordering New York.

(Rockett) "Oh! It was my dream! I was in the middle of the woods and my plan was to build my house in the middle of the woods, which I did."

(Cohen) At first Rockett looked into selling part of the land for conservation, but that didn’t pan out. She came up with a plan to build a small development of eight to 10 condominiums. And started by carving out a meadow.

(Rockett) "After I cleared this I put the two wells in. I put this pond in for the condominium unit with a waterfall. I had already done most everything to get it prepared for the beginning stages of building."

(Cohen) Rockett says this location has everything: a view of Jiminy Peak ski area, hiking on the Taconic Crest Trail and concerts at Tanglewood. But by 2006 she was running out of money, she couldn’t find an investment partner, and the real estate market was starting to get shaky.

(Rockett) "It took a little time to start to crash here, but once it did it really did. So I had to let it go."

(Cohen) Eventually Rockett found a buyer. One that would help fulfill her first dream: to keep the land wild. The state of Massachusetts bought 80 acres from her last fall.  She says the price was about a third of what she would have made from the condos.

Rockett worked with Keith Ross of LandVest, a real estate consulting company, to make the deal with the state. Ross says in the past two years he’s had six other clients who own land in western Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire in similar predicaments.

(Ross) "In each case these are significant sized properties and when the economy is good they would have been sold for development."

(Cohen) Ross says some developers  need to sell quickly.

(Ross) "For those land owners who haveto sell, who need the cash, they have dropped their asking prices pretty dramatically 30, 40, 50 percent in some places. That makes it possible for conservation buyers the ability to come in and acquire some of these pieces that they may have been priced out of previously."

(Cohen) A few states have been able to take advantage of the changing market. Massachusetts closed on about 10,000 acres of open space this year. Mary Griffin, commissioner of the Department of Fish and Game, says the state was able to buy land at a lower average price per acre.

(Griffin) "We’ve had a number of landowners that we have been pursuing for years that have prime wildlife habitat, prime ecological lands that are of utmost importance  from the state’s perspective that really never had an interest in talking to us who have approached us and  been interested in selling their land."

(Cohen) Some conservation groups are also trying to get the best out of this economy.  Chris LaPointe works in the Boston office of the Trust for Public Land. He says his group has negotiated deals with landowners that allow an entire year or even two for fund raising to buy a property. Something that’s key in this economy

(LaPointe) "What that does is really allows us to have the opportunity to line up local, state and federal funding  which can take anywhere from 12 to 18 months to pull together."

(Cohen) But in other parts of the northeast the downturn in the economy isn’t making land protection any easier.  Lise Hanners is with the Connecticut Chapter of the Nature Conservancy, which typically buys large parcels that are biologically diverse. Her group isn’t getting as many big donations as it used to. And there aren’t as many landowners who are ready to sell.

(Hanners) "Most people are sitting and waiting, holding onto their property, hoping the market will return because they want to get the full value that they feel their land is worth."

(Cohen) Greg Ugalde, one of the biggest Connecticut-based land developers, says other big developers he knows are not only holding onto their land, they’re buying more.

(Ugalde) "Builders now have to look ahead and say OK how many lots, when we turn from this economy, how many lots do I need in the future? And you’re out there trying to hunt around and try to find those and obtain them."

(Cohen)  "And maybe get a good deal?"

(Ugalde) "And hopefully get a reasonable deal. Right a good deal would be even better."

(Rockett) "Nala, Drop it, drop it"

(Coyen) Back in the Berkshires Suzanne Rockett and her German shephard Nala are walking up the hill from the former condo site. She says she would have preferred to hold onto the land. But having the state preserve it is almost as good

(Rockett) "If it had to happen it was really the best case scenario because the land will stay forever wild."

(Cohen) Now hunters and fishermen will always be able to visit this land along with the rest of the public.

For VPR News, I’m  Nancy Cohen.

(Host) Northeast environmental coverage is part of NPR’s Local News Initiative. The reporting is funded, in part, by grant from United Technologies.

Listen Wednesday during Morning Edition, some land conservation groups can’t raise the money to protect some special parcels.

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