A Maryland conservation group has devised a new way to protect streams and rebuild lost habitat: Buy it. Restore it. Then, sell it.
Earlier this year, Chesapeake Wildlife Heritage, a nonprofit organization based on the Eastern Shore, viewed the forests, streambanks and farmed wetlands on a 190-acre Kent County tract as having prime habitat restoration potential.
But there was a problem.
The owner, though sympathetic to restoration, decided against having the restoration work done because it would have locked up the valuable land with conservation easements preventing future development.
The group didn’t take no for an answer, though. Instead, it got into the real estate business.
“We just purchased this off the open market,” said Richard Pritzlaff, manager of landowner services with the CWH. “I had been looking for properties, and this one just looked great.”
The tract could have been subdivided into as many as eight building lots. Rather than building houses, the CWH plans to build habitat — lots of it. Then the land will be protected with conservation easements, which will allow no more than two homes to ever be built. “We’re giving away six development rights,” Pritzlaff said.
After the restoration is done and easements are secured, the property will be sold — in fact, a buyer is already lined up.
What spurred the conservation group to buy land — instead of just restoring it, as they normally do — was the ability to call all the shots on the restoration work.
“The Heritage over the years has worked with a lot of good landowners and has been able to accomplish quite a bit, but it’s always a struggle to do exactly what you want to do for the wildlife,” Pritzlaff said. “The whole thing here is really to get control of the land so we can do as much as possible.”
Plans call for converting about half of the 80 acres of farmland back into wetlands. Two bermed duck ponds will be removed to restore tidal action at the headwaters of a creek that bisects the property. A “no-cut” easement will be placed on most of the 110 acres of woodlands so they can be managed to become “old growth.” In addition, trees and shrubs will be restored along the creek’s edge, and problem plants such as phragmites and multiflora rose will be removed.
The restored area will provide habitat for dabbling ducks, geese, shorebirds, dragonflies, reptiles and amphibians, according to the CWH, while the removal of the pond should expand spawning habitat. According to the CWH, the location of the restored wetlands will help them filter runoff and remove nutrients before they reach the Bay.
The restored land will be enrolled in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s and Mary-land’s new Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, which pays landowners for taking the land out of production, restoring it, and restricting future use with an easement.
To make the $475,000 purchase possible, the CWH lined up a group of investors led by the Maryland Environmental Trust— the state organization that helps arrange conservation easements — who provided a $220,000 interest-free loan. The CWH members loaned the remaining $280,000. That not only allowed for the purchase, but left about $25,000 in “working capital” to cover transaction costs and other landholding expenses until the property is sold.
A buyer is already set to buy the property for $500,000 — the cost of the project and enough to reimburse the investors and pay back the MET loan. But the actual cost will be much less because the buyer will receive CREP rental payments for taking land out of production for the next 15 years and a one-time “bonus” payment from Maryland for a permanent easement for the restored area, plus tax write-offs for other lands placed in permanent easements. When that’s factored in, Pritzlaff said, the purchase price is “well under $400,000.”
The purchase won’t be final until the restoration work is completed and the easements are secured, something Pritzlaff said would probably take until next fall.
Meanwhile, Pritzlaff is ready to do it all again. “I’m looking for more properties,” he said.
Although purchasing and owning the land creates more hassles — a separate legal entity had to be set up to actually hold the land while the work is being done — Pritzlaff said the purchase-and-sale technique offers a new tool to promote land conservation and restoration, especially at a time when development pressure is so great on the Eastern Shore.
“It’s certainly easier if you can work with existing landowners,” he said. “It gets more complicated if you have to purchase the land and carry the land. But we’re not frightened away from doing that. You just have to find the right situations.”