Pat Burns, a careful observer of issues confronting land trusts, has recently called attention in Nature Noted to the extraordinary high cost of land protection in places where real estate prices have reached unprecedented heights. The southern Berkshires and Litchfield Hills, where I hang my various hats, are in one such area, but the market price of desirable land here is nothing compared to the coastal islands of southern New England. There, the Nature Conservancy and Block Island Land Trust are celebrating the protection of 25 acres at a cost of slightly more than 7 million dollars.
It is worth observing that in that high wealth area, the local Block Island Land Trust has committed to raising half the total purchase price, and the deal brought an additional 15 acres under protection through various means including gifts of easements. One has to be very resourceful, as well as creative, to compete with development at these high stakes. Novel and effective techniques of conservation finance continue to emerge and have an important role to play. Nonetheless, we in the conservation community have to question whether our bedrock practice of raising money and buying interest in land - the old "Bucks and Acres" measure of success - is up to sustaining the challenge in such a real estate market, or if other tactics are needed.
As 501 (c) (3) charitable organizations, land trusts cannot purchase property above fair market value. To keep straight with the IRS and as a responsible standard practice, the conservation organization bases its purchase price on a bona fide appraisal. The problem in a hot real estate market is that the most meaningful and relevant part of the appraisal, the value of recent comparable sales, often does not reflect the true market value. Sales even six months ago may be well below what a buyer will pay today for highly desirable open space. Without other incentives, a land trust offer to purchase at appraised full fair market value cannot compete in these circumstances with a private buyer who is free to offer more.
Here's one idea. Sometimes, when the conservation importance of a property is to expand the buffer for even more significant adjacent protected lands, a land trust might consider purchasing an easement that would prevent the impacts of inappropriate development but not restrict it altogether. If, for example, the overriding reason not to have a house on a piece of land is to prevent nutrient inputs to a calcareous seepage wetland, then the main threat from adjacent development may not be the house itself but almighty suburban lawn. If you can't afford to buy the land to prevent the house, can you instead buy an easement that limits lawn size and lawn care to prevent excessive nutrient loading down slope? It might be tricky to draft an easement that is not too narrow in conservation purpose to be valid in perpetuity, and monitoring compliance would require careful easement wording, but such an easement would cost a small fraction of the underlying fee. Rather than buying one house lot to protect a small part of the watershed, why not acquire easements on a dozen of them?
The key, hard question for land trusts is to ask what alternatives to outright conservation ownership might be needed to prevent the most significant threats to lands they would like to purchase but cannot afford, even with the help of other partners. In some cases the land must be saved, period. In others, a change in local zoning, or a bond initiative, or an anti-sprawl initiative at the regional scale, may be effective alternatives to costly land deals.