These are the best of times and the worst of times for land protection. On the one hand, real estate values have started to come down. On the other, landowner expectations have not fully made that adjustment, and with credit tight and conservation dollars even more limited, we still do not have the resources we need to take more advantage of these conservation opportunities. There are some bargains to be had if conservation investors have the liquidity to buy and hold land now to protect later, but many potential conservation buyers have seen their world erupt in flames and are still trying to get a handle on what to do with their remaining assets. While there is another year left to run on the Conservation Tax Incentives passed by Congress in 2006, many folks have lost more than they can recoup even with these attractive deductions.
What to do?
Conservation development is an idea that has gained traction in some quarters, particularly in hot real estate markets where saving land through the development process is the only feasible means to keep what limited open space remains open. Around the Litchfield Hills, it is generally recognized that there is far more land we need to conserve across this landscape than we can possibly protect using conventional means. Whether through a buy / divide / restrict / resell approach or through actually working with developers to ensure that more than just the scraps get saved, we need to maximize the conservation options at our disposal to have a realistic shot at saving the farms, forests and watershed lands that support this region's ecology and the rural quality of life we value.
This is by no means a simple proposition. In a soft market, making the numbers work with limited development on the development side can more difficult, yet no one wants a large number of unsold lots or houses in their inventories either. Conservationists need a process to determine what aspects of a property can and should be saved, and which properties are appropriate and feasible to conserve with limited development. The hardest conservation values to protect with limited development are those that have to do with historic or scenic character, though even here I believe there are cases when it can and should be possible. It may prove, as Disney discovered with wetland mitigation in Florida, that it makes better sense for large developers to underwrite the conservation of large tracts of undeveloped land to offset what they build as a huge, one-time offset. In an ongoing discussion over at Civil War Memory, I made the observation that Wal-Mart might be convinced to follow a similar approach to its pending development at a site within the (no-longer) Wilderness battlefield.
It may be impossible for the goals of historic preservation to coexist with a Wal-Mart superstore. But maybe they do not have to try and occupy the same space. If Wal-Mart is going to hold this ground, perhaps it and others like it could be motivated to secure other valuable territory to conserve the Battlefield, as well as adopt design features that address noise, traffic, screening and other green practices. Preservation doesn't need to become another Lost Cause.