Conservation groups cash in on cheap land

LOS ANGELES Thu Jan 14, 2010 3:27pm GMT

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LOS ANGELES (Reuters Life!) - When a property developer pulled out of a planned 65-home subdivision in Portland Oregon in 2008 because of the collapsing real estate market, a conservation group saw an opportunity.

The Trust for Public Land (TPL), a San Francisco-based non-profit which works to protect and conserve open spaces, bought the 27-acre parcel for $4.4 million, far less than the $6.2 million asking price when it was on the market in 2005. The land was then added to an adjacent park.

"The phone is ringing off the hook. People are looking to unload those properties and conservation is the beneficiary," said TPL's president Will Rogers.

"In this market, with demand where it is, a lot of these developments just don't pencil out. In many places we are seeing properties that were heading for development that are back on the market," he told Reuters in a phone interview.

The Portland acquisition is just one of many that TPL has made as it and other conservation groups find deals from the collapse in the real estate market that triggered the recession.

The environmental community has taken to calling it the recession's "green lining" and the immediate outlook for the building and construction industry remains bleak.

The Associated General Contractors of America said earlier this month that construction employment declined in 324 out of 337 U.S. metropolitan areas between November of 2008 and November of 2009.

"Spending on construction projects dropped by over $137 billion in November to a six-year low of $900 billion," it said.

Among the scrapheap of stalled or discarded projects, green groups are finding bargains.

In the Sierra Nevada foothills of California, TPL is buying about 595 acres of undeveloped land on the Bear River. It says the owner had planned to build a development of ranchettes but the plan was changed because of the real estate crash.

BIRD HABITAT EYED

On the other side of the country in Connecticut, another stalled development project has given green groups a chance to negotiate for a 42-acre site that contains habitat vital to the salt marsh sparrow, a species that is vulnerable to sea level rises associated with global warming.

The Connecticut town of Madison will hold a referendum on January 26 to seek voter approval to purchase the land. It will pay most of the $9.7 million but the Connecticut office of the National Audubon Society, TPL and a local grassroots coalition will also contribute.

"There is no question that the economic downturn got us in the door to negotiate ... If the property is not purchased by Madison as a coastal park, this developer has the resources to sit on the property until the market rebounds," said Sandy Breslin, Director of Government Affairs, Audubon Connecticut.

Green groups in the land conservation business have also found other opportunities aside from the real estate market.

"It has all created a perfect storm of opportunities," said Laura Huffman, Director of The Nature Conservancy of Texas, which works to protect land and watersheds through acquisitions but also through a process known as conservation easements.

Landowners who sign up to such programs can derive tax benefits from them. Huffman said in the current economic environment this had become an attractive option for some.

Such easements allow someone to retain ownership of their land but they agree to preserve it by, for example, not putting any more buildings on it, or developing it in other ways.

On the other hand, the hard times have also meant that non-profits have had to contend with declining donations and financial support which obviously curtails their ability to do things like buy land.

The Nature Conservancy saw its total support and revenue drop sharply to $547 million in its 2009 financial year from just over $1.1 billion in the previous year.

(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Patricia Reaney)

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