Cheap land? Low prices frustrate cash-strapped preservationists

The unfinished Abersham development near Davidson is now a county park. Photo: John Chesser

Land conservationists in the Charlotte region face a vexing dilemma.

The recession has preserved some tantalizing property that until recently was destined for development. But public and private organizations have precious little money to buy or otherwise protect the parcels they covet.

Although conservationists expect the pace of growth eventually will pick up again, the situation has them scrambling to preserve as much prime land as possible while they have the chance.

That requires groups such as land trusts and local governments to try new ways to strike deals and stretch their increasingly limited resources, several Charlotte-area conservationists said.

Rusty Painter, land protection director at the Conservation Trust for North Carolina, said the recession’s net effect has made it harder to conserve property in the state.

Although the economic doldrums have spared some property that might otherwise have been developed, that advantage often is outweighed by the financial challenges the recession has wrought, said Painter, whose Raleigh-based nonprofit organization is a land trust and service center for other land trusts.

Even where owners haven’t been able to develop land, they often are not eager to sell at the bottom of the market, Painter said. Many have faith their property values will rise again and expect a profit – sometimes a handsome one. “Everybody still hopes to get 2007 prices, but we’re not willing to pay them,” Painter said. “We’re not able to pay them.”

Conservationists have celebrated some breakthroughs, however.

In one recent case, Mecklenburg County bought about 115 acres that had been slated for 70 homes but will instead become part of the Latta Plantation Nature Preserve. The county, which tried to buy the property several years ago but could not afford it, negotiated a deal with the development firm Faison. Faison, which paid $2.5 million for the property in 2006, sold it for $2.185 million in December. The county received a $125,000 grant for the purchase from Duke Energy’s Habitat Enhancement Program.

Faison chairman and founder Henry Faison said the housing market’s slowdown was a factor in the company’s decision to sell the property.

“We were not going to be able to develop lots on it as quickly as we thought, so (the county) came and made us an offer and we sold it,” Faison said.

Funds grow scarce

Before the recession, money for conservation was more plentiful than it is now, but opportunities to protect land were relatively rare because the region’s real estate market was hot and development was booming. In the late 1990s, the nonprofit Carolinas Land Conservation Network determined the region would develop at an actual and projected average rate of 41 acres per day between 1980 and 2020.

Now that the downturn has slowed the churning of red clay and sent property values crashing, opportunities to protect land are more plentiful. These days, conservationists regularly field calls from people looking to unload property.

Money for conservation, however, has grown scarce.

Conservationists say North Carolina’s state government historically has been a leader in supporting land conservation, creating four conservation-related trust funds from 1987 to 2005.

Those funds help conservationists acquire property and easements restricting development. Such moves provide recreational and environmental benefits and support industries including tourism, agriculture and defense, conservationists say.

The state’s support has sharply declined as the recession has squeezed revenues and leaders in the General Assembly have deemphasized conservation, according to Edgar Miller, the Conservation Trust’s government relations director.

The state, which budgeted as much as $144 million per year to buy land, acquire easements and improve parks before the recession, budgeted about $55 million two years ago and about $8 million this year for those purposes, Miller said.

At the same time as state dollars have disappeared, private and federal money for land protection also is drying up, conservationists said.

Across the state, some conservation groups have laid off employees and taken other steps to trim costs, Painter said.

With less money available, deals take longer to forge and can require conservationists to try new techniques and cobble together more funding sources than in years past.

The Salisbury-based nonprofit LandTrust for Central North Carolina, for example, lately has entered several unusual deals to try to preserve rare properties it considers particularly important, executive director Jason Walser said.

The LandTrust’s recent methods have included: Executing a series of options on property to buy time for a purchase, buying a parcel in phases or installments and entering a seller-financed deal that will require a substantial payment in five years.

Those sorts of arrangements are risky and can be challenging to pull off, and they’ve made life more stressful for Walser and his colleagues. But, he said, “If there’s something that’s going to make a generational impact or difference, we have to try to make it happen.”

As the state’s funding for conservation has waned, at least one local government has stepped up its support. Jim Garges, director of Mecklenburg County’s park and recreation department, said county officials deserve credit for their recent decision to use 5.5 percent of any capital improvement spending for conservation. 

That policy took effect this year and provided about $6.5 million for conservation, Garges said. The money was a welcome infusion after the county, which had been on a “debt diet,” didn’t allocate any money for new conservation projects the previous two years, he said.

“I think, here in Mecklenburg County, we’re making great headway,” he said.

Hits and misses

In addition to the county’s deal with Faison, the recession has created other opportunities for conservation

– Walser’s group, for example, recently marshaled support to save 43 acres of urban forest in the Rowan County town of Spencer. The owner couldn’t develop the land because of the recession and was preparing to clear-cut it for timber when neighbors alerted the LandTrust, which quickly raised $445,000 from private sources and $200,000 from the state to buy the property.

– Mecklenburg County also recently bought about 242 acres in Davidson that once were slated for residential development but went into foreclosure. Mecklenburg officials had long eyed the property, near a greenway and another 400 preserved acres, but wouldn’t have been able to protect it if the recession hadn’t intervened, Garges said. The county didn’t immediately have money to make the purchase, so the national nonprofit Trust for Public Land bought the parcel and later sold it to the county, Garges said.

In other cases, the recession has left conservation efforts in limbo.

Dave Cable, who recently stepped down after seven years as executive director of the Charlotte-based nonprofit Catawba Lands Conservancy, said he has long sought to preserve a 4-mile stretch of the Catawba River south of Interstate 40 near Statesville.

Before the recession, he crafted a presentation about the land’s public and ecological value as a potential hotspot for canoeing and ecotourism, but the economy went south just as the idea gained momentum, he said.

The land has yet to be developed, but it has yet to be conserved, either.

Cable said it’s difficult to advance such a large project in a down economy.

 “It’s not like we can go up to Hickory and have a bunch of bake sales and pull this off,” Cable said.

He hopes the concept can be resurrected in better financial times.

“It is teed up,” he said.

Conservation's future

Despite the recession’s fiscal challenges, conservationists continue to add to the rolls of protected land in both the region and state, although their pace appears to have slowed.

North Carolina’s land trusts protected far less land in 2010 (about 11,931 acres) than they did in 2007 (33,429 acres), according to Conservation Trust data.

The story is much the same among three of the Charlotte region’s most prominent land trusts: Charlotte-based Catawba Lands Conservancy, Salisbury-based LandTrust for Central North Carolina and Morganton-based Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina. Despite a banner year for the Catawba conservancy in 2010, the trio combined to protect 2,534 acres that year, down from 7,747 acres in 2007, the Conservation Trust data show.

Some conservation groups have stopped seeking to buy property or easements altogether and now depend entirely on donations, Painter said.

Particularly as funding remains scarce, Garges said, the region’s conservation advocates should carefully assess which properties they most value, so they can pounce if those parcels become available.

“Until you get that done, you’re going to miss opportunities, for sure,” Garges said.