By Cheryl Weber. Paul Barnes, director of land acquisition for Shea Homes, has come to accept that negotiations on land-trust issues are an inevitable part of the cost of development.
The company has just started grading on Kelly Ranch, a 400-acre property purchased from a private landowner and zoned for single- and multifamily housing. Barnes describes the land as "a combination of coastal sage, low-quality wetlands, and some uplands." However, in the entitlement process, Shea was required to set aside more than 50 percent of the land for environmental safekeeping. It deeded some 200 acres back to the Trust for Public Land and wrote a check, which the Trust invested for ongoing revenue to manage the land.
More than 1,200 regional and local land trusts exist today, up from 887 in 1990, according to the Land Trust Alliance, based in Washington. Many of these groups focus their efforts on protecting one particular type of environment -- wetland, farmland, forest -- and have no purchasing power. But their nonprofit status allows them to offer landowners significant tax benefits in exchange for protecting their property from development. And they're able to wield their expertise in negotiations, public finance, and real estate law to protect land for public use.
The growing trend of saving land through trusts has developers compliant, though at times perplexed. "Personally, I'm challenged a little bit," says Barnes, who is based in Shea's San Diego headquarters. "This land has been in open natural space for many, many years. It hasn't had a shepherd organizing the maintenance of it, and now someone has to own and maintain it. Yet, it's become status quo now that there will be some sort of arrangement between our industry and environmental groups to maintain a remnant of open space. At the end of the day, it's the price of admission."
It's the same story on the East Coast. When the Trilogy Development Co. purchased Cherry Farm, a 200-acre estate property in the Philadelphia suburb of Chadd's Ford, Pa., the company owners decided to pay that admission fee preemptively. Richard Jacoby and John Lynch asked the local Brandywine Conservancy to help them draft a plan that would preserve the land's natural, cultural, and historic resources. The resulting development clusters residential buildings on four of the least sensitive areas and provides for 100 acres of community open space.
"This is not the way development normally happens," says Jacoby, "but it seemed like an intelligent thing to do given the property's proximity to the Brandywine Battlefield. Part of our thinking was that, instead of going in with a high-handed attitude about maxing out density, why not enlist people who would be sympathetic to the values of the community?"
In recent years, land trusts have become an increasingly popular method for saving acreage that would otherwise be developed, and one that's likely to continue. "Large tracts of land are disappearing so quickly, especially around the East Coast," says Stephen Outlaw, spokesperson for the Land Trust Alliance. "We push for legislation that supports tax policies that are beneficial to landowners wanting to conserve land. We're also pushing to increase federal funding, to meet the rise in property values around the nation."
Warming to the idea
Though their respective goals are at odds, most developers and land trusts aren't engaging in the nasty tug-of-war game one might expect. With the rapid rise in the number of private, nonprofit land trusts over the last decade, there is evidence, however, that developers are doing business a little differently.
The Trilogy relationship illustrates the way such trusts are evolving, says Brandywine Conservancy's public relations director Halsey Spruance. Rather than being a holder of conservation easements, trusts are working with municipalities on comprehensive plans to guide growth 25 to 30 years into the future. And they're working with developers by offering market-based solutions such as cluster development and transferable development rights. "We're conservationists," Spruance says, "but we're not tree-huggers in terms of throwing wrenches in front of bulldozers."
Jacoby believes that today's developers are equally conciliatory. "For the most part, the development community is accepting the way the world is right now, in terms of what you have to go through, and not trying to press every advantage," he says. "The ways developers get whittled down on density are often subtle, and many requirements are less than objective in nature, so that you can't read an ordinance and be totally sure of what you can put on a property. So we have to work with these people. If it's done in a cooperative fashion, the result is good for everyone."
John Hunter, a California developer who heads Majestic Realty, agrees. "Working with land trusts could and should be a way to get entitlement," he adds. "While green and open space is a good thing, development can be equally good, particularly when it involves the creation of jobs and revenues. We should see their side a little more clearly, and they should see our side more clearly."
--Cheryl Weber is based in Severna Park, Md.
Published in BIG BUILDER Magazine, July 2002