Economy a double-edged sword for Maine land trusts

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HARPSWELL — Four years ago, the largest undeveloped parcel of land in South Harpswell was out of reach for the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust.

“There was no way,” Reed Coles, executive director of the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust, said. “The price was much too high.”

The owners wanted $1.7 million for the Basin Cove-Curtis Cove property, which includes 87 acres of wetlands, forests, fields and clam flats.

But two years later, the land was still on the market, and the owners had dropped the price to $865,000 – still a significant amount, especially for a small land trust. But Coles thought it was possible, and after an aggressive fundraising campaign and a $600,000 National Coastal Wetlands grant, the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust was able to purchase the property early this year.

This pattern is repeating itself elsewhere in Cumberland County and throughout Maine.

“In general I would say that the recession has created opportunities for land trusts,” said David MacDonald, director of land protection at the Maine Coast Heritage Trust.

One reason land trusts have gotten lucky recently is that development pressure has waned.

“In the past, there have been many developers lining up at the door to buy property,” said Angela Twitchell, executive director of the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust. “Now there’s not a lot of development going on, it gives us an opportunity to talk to land owners.”

Twitchell said the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust acquired five properties or conservation easements in 2010, “the most we’ve ever done in a year.” One of those purchases added six acres to Crystal Spring Farm, a working organic farm and the land trust’s signature property.

As in Harpswell, declining property values also contributed to the purchase. According to Realtor Gary Lord, the land was first listed in April 2007 for $275,000. But by this winter, the owners were willing sell the property to the land trust for $100,000.

“Where properties have been on the market for a while, land owners are more receptive to creative solutions,” said Jed Harris, vice president of the Falmouth Land Trust. He explained that some land owners turn to conservation when their properties have been for sale for a long time and still haven’t sold.

A deal in Falmouth is an example. The town is working to buy a 51-acre parcel of mostly undevelopable wetlands along the East Branch of the Piscataqua River. The property owner had been unsuccessfully trying to sell the property as two, 30-acre house lots for more than two years, said Bob Shafto, the town’s open space ombudsman.

Shafto said two years ago he approached the seller with a proposal: “What about instead of trying to sell the whole property to two people, sell two five-acre lots and put the rest into conservation?” The seller said he was interested, and the town is now in the process of closing on the remaining 51 acres.

Harris said the deal, which has not yet been completed, “met (the land owner’s) near-term objectives and allowed us to get a fair amount of land under conservation, (whereas) in a high-flying real estate market you probably wouldn’t have that opportunity.”

MacDonald said he sees the same thing up and down the Maine coast.

“A real estate market that has slowed down a bit has prompted more owners to come into to talk to the land trust first before trying to sell their property,” he said.

But Harris said that in Falmouth, purchases like these have been rare in recent years; what’s more common is a decrease in donations of land or conservation easements.

When a land owner decides to donate either of these to a land trust, they receive a tax break. But the less the land is worth, the smaller the break. As Harris explained, a land owner might say, “look I’d like to donate my property, but I’m going to wait and see what happens with the real estate market … and maybe I’ll donate then.”

MacDonald said other land owners simply can’t afford to restrict all future development on their land anymore, which is essentially what a conservation easement does. He recalled a family with oceanfront property on Mount Desert Island that had to withdraw from easement talks with Maine Coast Heritage Trust because their personal finances took a hit.

“They don’t want to sell their property, but they need to retain that option,
 he said.

Tim Glidden, director of Land for Maine’s Future, which uses public money to protect land with exceptional recreational or ecological value, said with a few exceptions like the Harpswell purchase, he doesn’t think the recession has been good for land trusts.

“Some people are picking up good bargains, but I would say the broader pattern is more challenging because funding is much tighter,” he said.

His organization’s most recent $9 million bond, approved last November, is much smaller than the previous $20 million borrowing voters approved in 2007.

“I don’t think (the recession) has been a panacea for land conservation,” he said. 

But Glidden was heartened that voters approved a bond for conservation at all in 2010.

“It’s an interesting signal that even in tough times,” he said, “folks in Maine have the protection of land as core value.”

Emily Guerin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or

Sidebar Elements

Jed Harris, vice president of the Falmouth Land Trust, left, and Bob Shafto, Falmouth open space ombudsman, on Woodville Road overlooking the East Branch of the Piscataqua River. The town is hoping to purchase a 51-acre property along the river and to secure conservation easements for another 58 acres.

A celebratory sign alongside Basin Cove in Harpswell. The Harpswell Heritage Land Trust acquired the 87-acre shorefront property in early January.