The housing market collapse presented land conservation trusts with the opportunity to purchase land slated for development. As a study by the Land Trust Alliance puts it, “land trusts are attractive buyers (to banks) because they don’t require further infrastructure investments.”
Land trusts all over the country are taking advantage of those opportunities. In Northern California, several land trusts acquired parcels this year. The Trust for Public Land bought chaparral-covered land for $4 million that was going to be bulldozed. The Peninsula Open Space trust paid $16 million in June for the 966-acre Rancho San Vicente, a former cattle ranch. The Ranch was slated to have 300 units and 16 large estates built.
The Sonoma Land Trust agreed to pay $36 million for the 5,630 acre Rule Ranch in the hills. The Northern Sierra Partnership has been buying one-square mile parcels of private land in the area between South Lake Tahoe and Lassen Volcanic National Park.
Erik Vink, the project manager for Trust for Public Land said, “To have property with this combination of oak woodlands bordered by river is extraordinary. There aren’t many properties like this out there, especially in this low foothills belt.”
“This is our moment to shine,” said Sam Hodder, the California director of the Trust for Public Land. “It’s important that we take this moment of opportunity and seize it.”
Across the country in Connecticut, land trusts are also buying parcels slated for development. The Trust for Public Land bought a 42-acre site for $9.7 million that was going to be a 127-unit housing development. The site has salt marches.
David Bingham, vice chairperson of the Connecticut League of Conservation Voters, said of a site recently acquired by a land trust:
Two years ago we offered the owner of a 63-acre sawmill property $240,000 as part of our continuing efforts to preserve the river corridor. Well, he refused that offer and put his property on the real estate market for twice that price. But he couldn’t find buyers in this recession and came back to us this year, and we made the deal.
“What’s happened this year very closely follows what happened during the Depression, when the state of Connecticut was able to acquire so much of its existing parkland,” said Bingham. “What happened then and is happening now is that the land speculators drop out of bargaining for land, and then either the state or the nonprofit land trust groups can come in and identify it as worthy of saving.”
“Even though we are calling this the Great Recession, the public obviously still assigns huge value to saving open spaces,” said Lisa Bassani, a land trust project manager. “And this experience doesn’t seem to vary from town to town, even though they are socially and economically very different.”
“There are obviously a lot of challenges due to the tremendous changes in the market,” said Kendra J. Briechle, manager for Conservation and Development at the Conservation Fund. “But while the cost of things changes, the basic value of conservation endures… The biggest mistake a community can make is not planning for land conservation when the market is down.”