March 12, 2010

Buyer's market may help land trusts


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Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer: Bob Shafto, the Town of Falmouth Open Space Ombudsman, discusses the 30-acre Harriman property the town purchased in Falmouth on January 8, 2009.

Tim Greenway

click image to enlarge

Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer: Bob Shafto, the Town of Falmouth Open Space Ombudsman, discusses the 30-acre Harriman property the town purchased in Falmouth on January 8, 2009.

Tim Greenway

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Staff Writer

After years of trying to keep pace with developers and rising property values, land conservationists like Robert Shafto of Falmouth are finally looking at a buyer's market.

''It's a good time to be buying land,'' Shafto said, ''if you have the money.''

That's a big ''if'' these days.

Maine's 100 or so land trusts are looking for new conservation opportunities amid the turmoil in the economy, and in some cases, they're finding them. But they also are facing the challenges of raising funds in a recession and closing deals in an unsettled real estate market.

The financial climate is expected to lead to more creative conservation projects, such as acquisitions that have economic as well as scenic benefits. It also is sure to encourage more collaboration between groups, and could speed up consolidation of smaller local land trusts into larger regional groups.

''I think all the pieces are there to see some real challenging land conservation times,'' said Kevin Case, Northeast Program director for the Land Trust Alliance, a national advocacy group. ''I don't know if the full impact has been really felt yet.''

It is clearly uncharted territory for the land trust movement, which emerged in force over the past two decades. Maine has been at the front of the trend and now has some 100 land trusts, ranging from all-volunteer local groups to professional statewide organizations, such as the Maine Coast Heritage Trust.

In the past decade, Maine's land trusts have conserved well over 1 million acres and helped protect more privately owned land than in nearly any other state. That is especially important, given that Maine ranks near the bottom nationwide in terms of public conservation land, conservationists say.

Shafto, who is working on several conservation acquisitions for the Town of Falmouth, said he's received calls from developers who may sell land to raise money. At the same time, he said, at least one planned acquisition in Falmouth has fallen through, at least for now, because of the markets.

''Some donors are holding off simply because the value of their properties for tax purposes are not as high as they might be if they wait. Some feel the same way about selling land,'' Shafto said.

''Our list of active new acquisition projects is at its lowest level since I've been here, which is 11 years,'' said Scott Dickerson, executive director of the Coastal Mountains Land Trust in Camden. The regional trust, which covers the western Penobscot Bay region, has five or six active projects instead of the usual 15 or 20, he said.

''We're still working on some big, valuable, important projects, just not as many at the moment.''

Fundraising also is a concern.

Some land trust representatives said they are seeing a modest drop in private donations. And, like all nonprofits, land trusts fear charitable foundations will scale back grants after enduring large losses in the financial markets.

Maine land trusts also rely on conservation funding from municipal and state governments, and budgets at both levels will be extremely lean this year.

The Land for Maine's Future program has already allocated the $17 million approved by the state's voters last fall to 46 different conservation projects. It will be up to the Maine Legislature whether to put another bond referendum for land conservation on the ballot this fall, and that could be a tough sell, given falling state revenues and budget cutbacks.

''It's such an unpredictable and new situation,'' said Tim Glidden, director of the state conservation program. While it's a good time to invest in conservation, he said, ''obviously the Legislature will have to weigh the challenges the state faces.''

Some land trusts already are adjusting their strategies.

''We really want to keep up the momentum,'' said Paul Gallay, president of the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, which focuses efforts on protecting islands and coastal properties.

The trust plans to involve communities in conservation efforts and to focus on projects that have broad appeal and economic benefits, such as protecting waterfront access for fishermen or clam diggers.

''Those kinds of ideas are the ones that are resonating,'' Richard Knox, spokesman for the Maine Coast Heritage Trust.

Gallay said land trusts in general will branch out and get creative, focusing on recreation, social activities and even helping with economic development.

''They're going to be more than just a conservation organization,'' he said. ''That's the future of the movement.''

In Falmouth, for example, Shafto is working on buying a 30-acre patch of forest that will connect to a corridor of protected land through the town, providing valuable wildlife habitats and recreational opportunities.

However, the lands also will be used to supply firewood to heat the town's new elementary school, a feature that clearly has helped it win support, he said.

Some land trust representatives said joint projects between conservation organizations will be more important, and some also see consolidation, as local organizations merge or share professional staffs.

''Across the country, all these external pressures -- the economy, development, burnout -- are pushing trusts to really think about, is it really effective for each town to have their own land trust?'' said Jessica Burton, administrator of the Portland North Land Trust Collaborative, which provides professional support to land trusts based in Falmouth, Cumberland and the Casco Bay islands. ''The whole basis of the collaborative is to save money and time and energy.''

Gallay, from the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, said land trusts will adapt. And, he said, they may be able to protect valuable pieces of landscape that would have been developed if the economy and real estate market were still thriving.

''We have some opportunities we didn't have,'' he said.

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer: Bob Shafto, the Town of Falmouth Open Space Ombudsman, discusses the 30-acre Harriman property the town purchased in Falmouth on January 8, 2009.

Tim Greenway

click image to enlarge

Staff Photo by John Patriquin, Friday, April 27, 2001: Jordan's Delight island off Milbridge now belongs to the Maine Coast Heritage Trust.


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