Focus On: Land Conservation

Land trusts confront competing affordability concerns.

November 1, 2003

Conservationists have long touted programs in eastern Pennsylvania’s Berks and Lancaster counties as two of the country’s showcase land preservation efforts. Since 1989, thanks to state and county trust funds, the area’s mostly Amish farmers have received up to $2,000 per acre for their development rights on about 70,000 acres in exchange for allowing the counties to impose conservation easements on the land.

But now, with little affordable land available in the area for development, critics are concerned that conservation is coming at the expense of low- and moderate-income households.

Over the last two years, area land prices have at least doubled. That has pushed down the number of starter homes available for young families, says Joe Capellupo, president of Capellupo Construction and past president of the Home Builders Association of Berks County.

Many factors contribute to rising land prices, including an increase in demand fueled by historically low interest rates—a trend that impacts areas with and without conservation efforts equally. But conservation efforts may place an extra burden on areas already struggling with affordability issues.

As support, critics cite a 1999 Arizona Housing Commission report, The State of Housing in Arizona, that names the shortage of private land as the biggest obstacle to affordable housing.

And the problem isn’t limited to affordability, say critics. The lack of developable land is contributing to sprawl, as developers leapfrog over restricted areas to outlying tracts. That, in turn, impacts jobs, because industries can’t find land on which to build.

How did we get here?

The land preservation movement took off about 20 years ago, fueled in part by estate and other tax laws that provide incentives to owners to sell their land or development rights for preservation.

Rand Wentworth, president of the 900-member Land Trust Alliance, says the incentive is needed, because the United States is losing two million acres each year to development.

But it’s not clear that the country faces a land crisis. Practitioners favoring balanced conservation policies have cited a 2001 NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®’ study, Land Use and Land Loss in the United States, which finds less than 5 percent of the country’s acreage is developed. The study also finds “the rate and amount of land set aside for public and open spaces has been growing far beyond that used for residential and commercial purposes.”

Other data bear that out. By their own count, the country’s 1,200-plus private land trusts have preserved more than 37 million acres. The total grows well beyond that when public preservation efforts, such as Pennsylvania’s, are factored in.

NAR’s position on land preservation focuses on private property rights: As long as a deal involves a willing seller, and the buyer pays fair market value, then the sale should go through.

Seeking middle ground

Can land conservation and affordable housing with access to jobs coexist? That question continues to confound practitioners in fast-growing states. “Where are all these people supposed to live?” says Gail Griffin of Sierra Vista Realty in Sierra Vista, Ariz. Griffin served on the commission that produced the Arizona report.

A Vermont effort may hold a clue. The Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, created in 1987, has the dual mission of creating affordable housing and conserving land. How does it achieve both goals? It applies alternative development models, such as clustering housing on a site with conserved open space and creating housing in historic buildings targeted for preservation. As of the first part of 2003, VHCB has tapped $658 million in state funding to create 6,419 units of affordable housing while conserving 328,350 acres of land.

To the extent efforts such as the Vermont model become solutions, the goals of conservation and affordability may work hand in hand.

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