Preservation by purchase

Neighbors pool cash, buy threatened lands

November 22, 2001|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Tucked in rural Woodensburg is a farm with fields of grain, a farm that neighbors admired as they drove past on Old Hanover Road - a farm that was going to become golf fairways and greens.

Except neighbors in the northwestern Baltimore County community wouldn't stand for it. Forty of them pooled about $250,000, took out two loans and bought the 135-acre tract two years ago. The grain remains. Now there are horses, too.

Increasingly, in Maryland and across the country, neighbors are waging guerrilla warfare on development. They're not counting on zoning regulations. They're not counting on the courts. They're not hoping for deliverance by politicians or foundations, and they're definitely not wringing their hands and watching development take over.

Instead, they're writing checks.

The trend can be seen in the impressive growth of community and regional land trusts, which number more than 1,200 nationwide - a 42 percent jump since 1990, according to the Washington-based Land Trust Alliance.

"We're trying to hold the line," said Ned Halle, who organized the northwestern Baltimore County land purchase and several others. "In the past, the frontier mentality has prevailed; the idea is, when it's developed here, you move farther out. But there isn't any `farther out' anymore."

Nick Williams, coordinator of local land trust assistance with the Maryland Environmental Trust, said he encourages this self-reliant attitude toward community preservation. Some land doesn't qualify for government conservation money, he noted.

"People have woken up to the fact that the local zoning is not going to protect the land around them," Williams said. "We hear a constant litany of stories from people who feel they've been betrayed by their local zoning process. They bought their land with the assurance that the land next to them wasn't going to be developed, and then an up-zoning occurred."

Preserving land by purchase can - with a little luck - cost neighbors nothing in the long run. Williams is seeing more groups organize "conservation buyer deals" by purchasing property and selling it to someone else with restrictions that limit or block more development. Other communities donated money knowing they'd never see it again. But always, the intent is neighborhood preservation.

Residents in the 420-home community of Bay Ridge, near Annapolis, have pledged more than $900,000 during the past nine months to buy 115 acres of woodlands, beaches and bluffs in their neighborhood and block plans for 160 houses there. Besides the donations, each homeowner agreed to pay an assessment of $250 a year in addition to property taxes until the debt is retired.

A dozen families formed a limited liability company this summer and bought a 2 1/2 -acre parcel in their Ellicott City neighborhood to prevent commercial development there. The community had just successfully fought off plans for a large child care center and didn't want an encore performance.

People in Baltimore's tree-lined Dickeyville neighborhood saved a central piece of the community - the top of Dickey Hill - by offering slightly more than $42,000 in cash to the landowners in 1988. A developer had a contract on the 5 1/2 -acre parcel for twice as much, but the financing fell through. Nearly everyone in the community of about 120 homes gave something, from $5 to $3,000, and kept townhouses from replacing the maples, oaks and other trees covering the hill.

Figuring development was inevitable on the 436 acres of forest and fields next door, the Calvert County bayside community of Scientists' Cliffs started the American Chestnut Land Trust and pooled $400,000 in 1986 and 1987 to make a down payment on the property. Residents raised the remaining $450,000 by transferring the development rights for the land.

Even when significant government or private funding comes through, some communities donate substantial sums. Anne Arundel residents chipped in nearly a quarter of a million dollars toward the $1.55 million needed to preserve 298 acres of forest, fields and shoreline in Crownsville. The Trust for Public Land closed a contract on the property in September.

"I would argue that's a trend we're going to see more of as development reaches out into the suburban areas that have resources more readily available," said Susan Clark, a regional public affairs manager for the San Francisco-based Trust for Public Land. "I think people in suburban areas are beginning to realize how threatened their quality of life is."

Vision, work, money

Successful community efforts to buy land tend to have these things in common: a shared vision of what the area should, and shouldn't, look like; volunteers willing to spend countless hours soliciting donations and expert advice; a nonprofit to take the money or hold the easement on the land, protecting it from development; and a landowner willing to negotiate.

Having an attorney or two in the neighborhood doesn't hurt, either.

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