US property downturn is good news for conservationists

The downturn in the property market in the US is good news for one group of people - conservationists are buying up historic and scenic land once earmarked for development.

The Trust for Public Land, a national not for profit organisation that helps conserve land as parks, historic sites and rural areas, has recently secured almost 1,000 acres of land in Georgia, Oregon, Minnesota and Massachusetts.

And it is currently trying to 'save' beaches on the north shore of O'ahu, Hawaii, home to the threatened green sea turtle and endangered monk seal.

'It is the green lining of the current property market,' said Will Rogers, president of the Trust which uses a pool of money to buy property until other land trusts and governments can raise enough money to buy it.

Nearly 1,700 local and state land trusts belong to the Land Trust Alliance, a national coalition, while one of the largest conservancy groups, The Nature Conservancy, protects ecologically important land and water.

In Florida the Nature Conservancy is practically overwhelmed by people clamoring to get out from under property, said Keith Fountain, director of land acquisition for the Conservancy's Florida chapter.

'Just a few years ago conservationists couldn't compete. It was very tough to buy anything. Now it exceeds anything I've seen in my 16 years with the conservancy,' he said.

The Florida conservancy recently closed deals on between 85,000 and 100,000 acres worth about $380 million. The Trust for Public Land estimates it is snapping up properties for 30% to 60% less than it could have just three years ago.

But it is not all bad news for developers. Permanently protecting land from development often helps drive up values of nearby property. Also for some developers conservation is a way to salvage at least part of their business plans.

For example Atlantis West Development had hoped to build lucrative upscale condominiums on 4 acres of beachfront property in Indian Shores west of Tampa when it bought the property for $28 million in December 2005.

But selling half of that acreage to the Trust for Public Land, even at a loss, could help Atlantis West generate enough leverage to develop the remaining acreage. 'It's not the scenario we had hoped for, but you kind of do what you have to do,' said spokesman Gary Rufkahr.