Down Market Benefits Land Conservancy Groups

fromKQED

The collapse of the housing market has had a silver lining for open-space advocates. Land conservancy groups are snapping up prime real estate for pennies on the dollar. But, like any other nonprofit, land trusts depend on individual donations to make these purchases happen, and nonprofit giving is down. How do you make the case for open space during a recession?

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Few sectors have been hit harder by the recession than the building industry. Less than half as many new homes are being built these days than two years ago. Still, for people in the business of land conservation, this has opened up opportunities they never expected. From member station KQED in San Francisco, Amy Standen reports.

AMY STANDEN: Here at Bruin Ranch, there are four lakes, three miles for pristine river frontage and countless blue oak trees. Until recently, this 2,500-acre spread just north of Sacramento was the personal refuge of one man, rancher and businessman Lloyd Harvego.

Mr. LLOYD HARVEGO (Rancher): I can come out here, take the grandkids fishing. And if I want to go ride on my quad, I can go do that for three or four hours and never see anybody.

STANDEN: But Harvego's also been trying to sell this property, which was zoned for 900 new homes. At one point, Bruin Ranch was on the market for $30 million. Had a deal gone through, this would've been a very different place.

Mr. HARVEGO: Most of the housing would be up there on that hill. They would all be on large lots, and I would be nestled in between the trees.

STANDEN: But those plans belong to a different housing market, before home sales here in Placer County went into free fall. Dean Worley is an analyst with the Sullivan Group Real Estate Advisors.

Mr. DEAN WORLEY (Sullivan Group): Here, let me give you the percent drop. It's going to be brutal. Let's see.

STANDEN: Worley calculates that in 2002, there were 5,000 new home sales in Placer County. In 2009, just 1,200. That's a 76 percent drop.

Mr. WORLEY: It's really an extraordinarily slow year in terms of new home sales.

STANDEN: Which was bad news for Lloyd Harvego, but good news for Megan Wargo. She says she's had her eyes on Bruin Ranch for years.

Ms. MEGAN WARGO (Project Manager, Trust for Public Land): Yeah, for at least a decade.

STANDEN: Wargo is a project manager for the Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit group that buys land to be set aside as open space.

Ms. WARGO: It's really rare to find a property this size in western Placer County that is intact. It's a special place.

STANDEN: The Trust for Public Land, along with the Placer Land Trust, is in the process of raising about $13 million in state and private money to buy this land. The two groups say it could be the centerpiece of a major new public park.

Ms. WARGO: With this piece of land, we'll actually have the ability to connect up over 6,500 acres of protected land that's permanently protected - probably an unparalleled hiking experience in the foothills of Los Sierra.

STANDEN: At a time of unparalleled opportunities for land conservation in general.

Mr. WILL ROGERS (President, Trust for Public Land): The phone is ringing off the hook in a number of our markets.

STANDEN: This is Will Rogers, president of the Trust for Public Land.

Mr. ROGERS: Whether it's beach front property in Hawaii or in Florida or civil war battlefields in farms in Georgia, I mean, it's all over the place.

STANDEN: Rogers says he's hearing from developers who took out loans to buy a piece of property, but have now decided it isn't worth it to develop.

Mr. ROGERS: Oftentimes, we're seeing land that's fully entitled, ready to go, they've spend years assembling the property, getting the permits and whatever they need to be able to move ahead, and now there's just no market.

STANDEN: But just because there's opportunity doesn't mean that land trusts are able to grab it. That's because the same recession that sent real estate prices into free fall has also hit the nonprofit sector.

Mr. JEFF DANTER (Director, Nature Conservancy): That's the real irony of this situation. Now, when we have the best opportunities in my career, the resources available to do that conservation work are really drying up.

STANDEN: Jeff Danter directs the Nature Conservancy in Florida.

Mr. DANTER: It is incredibly frustrating. We're having to say no to a lot of conservation transactions that normally we would be very excited about.

STANDEN: Which means that land trusts, like a lot of nonprofits, will be making their appeals to donors this year with a new sense of urgency.

For NPR News, I'm Amy Standen.

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