The Great Recession may have devastated development across the region, but it has proven a boon for public land trusts, nonprofit groups that use public funds and private donations to buy land for conservation.
These public trusts have been snapping up large tracts of land or buying conservation easements -- agreements in which landowners essentially promise not to allow development on their land in exchange for money -- while developers have been sitting on the sidelines or going out of business.
Forget the "silver lining." They call it the "green lining" of the downturn. With land prices a bargain and some owners desperate to sell, land trusts are taking advantage of pots of public money to close big deals.
"There's no doubt there have been easily five times as many opportunities due to the economy," said Jeff Darlington, executive director of the Placer Land Trust.
While land trusts don't have enough funding to keep pace with the sudden supply, they have been able to buy some fairly notable pieces of land in the past few years. Most recently, the Placer Land Trust partnered with the San Francisco-based Trust for Public Land to buy nearly 1,800 acres of oak woodlands just outside Auburn for $9.5 million. The land is part of the 2,600-acre Bruin Ranch property owned by businessman and developer Lloyd Harvego.
"It reminded me of a little Shangri-La. It's just a nice, quiet, serene area," said Dave Jarrette, the appraiser on the deal.
The land is ripe for residential development, Jarrette said, but "the private sector isn't there to buy these things now." The Placer Land Trust plans to have public hiking trails on the property.
Bruin Ranch is just one of the deals the trust has closed during the recession.
In late 2009, the trust managed to buy an agricultural conservation easement on 350 acres above Lake Clementine for $700,000 from rancher Daryl Oest.
At the time, Oest was facing small profit margins and other fallout from the down economy, Darlington said. The easement allowed him to stay on the land.
The Trust for Public Land also has closed some big deals during the recession. In December, the trust bought 138 acres behind the Hollywood sign for $11.7 million. The sale came three years after a Chicago-based group of investors had put the land up for sale, asking $22 million and marketing the property for luxury homes, according to the trust.
Such projects are an invaluable public investment, said Sam Hodder, the Trust for Public Land's California director.
"It's those resources that define the livability of a community," Hodder said.
But land trusts are not without controversy. Sellers are often large, affluent landowners who sometimes receive tax breaks for working out deals. Also, the nonprofit organizations use public funds to buy land. In the case of Bruin Ranch, $5 million came from the county and $4.5 million from state bond money for open space.
The arrangement doesn't sit right with some developers, who argue they shouldn't have to compete with government-funded trusts.
"In a real estate market such as today's, if the Trust for Public Land or some other not-for-profit, pseudo-government entity was not the buyer, what would the value be?" said Doug Ose, a developer and former Republican congressman. "These funding mechanisms are completely twisting the true values of the properties."
Hodder disagreed, saying the appraisal process "is designed to make sure the public is paying a fair price for these natural resources."
"This deal is not about making money," Harvego said. "It's about preserving some very important parts of California for future generations."
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)