Nature Noted

Notes on a changing Nature

Location: Bellville, Texas, United States

I never would have predicted this one

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

One Expensive Block

It's the old real estate saw, location, location, location. And just as you pay more for that house in the hot neighborhood, so land trusts have to pay more for property with a high development value. That's also why The Nature Conservancy and the Block Island Trust were willing to buy 40 acrews on Rhode Island's Block Island for a cool $12 million.
On Wednesday, Dec. 28, The Nature Conservancy and the Block Island Land Trust completed a transaction to conserve 40 acres of land just south of Rodmanís Hollow. This property has been a conservation priority for more than 20 years, completing the visionary work in this area begun by Capt. John R. "Robî" Lewis in 1972, and added to throughout the years.
This unique and spectacular tract abuts Rodmanís Hollow to the north and Black Rock to the west. It is perhaps the most ecologically significant, undeveloped, unprotected property remaining on Block Island, and one that many people thought was already conserved.
In addition to the conservation value of this property, it will allow for a continuation of the walking trails in Rodmanís Hollow to finally reach Black Rock (as opposed to walking on the old road). It will also ensure that the beach access and parking at Tomís Cove, a popular fishing and surfing spot, remains open to the public. Also as a result of this transaction, the town will have an improved and widened Snake Hole Road beach access.
The transaction has four components. First, The Nature Conservancy, with the help of the Block Island Land Trust, purchased 25 acres (two tracts) for $7,070,000, its fair market value, from the Jones family. Second, The Nature Conservancy received the outright donation of another 2-acre parcel from the Jones family. Third, The Nature Conservancy accepted the donation of a 13-acre conservation easement from Graham and Gay Jones. Finally, the Town of New Shoreham, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, Graham and Gay Jones, and The Nature Conservancy entered into a joint management agreement for the Rodmanís Hollow/Black Rock area that will ensure public access and appropriate public use for the area in perpetuity.
With the gifts of land and easements, the total value of this transaction exceeds $12 million, the highest-value Block Island conservation transaction ever. Of the $7,070,000 purchase price, the Land Trust has agreed to pay for almost half, and The Nature Conservancy will pay the balance. This necessitated The Nature Conservancy to secure a substantial loan from its internal revolving Land Preservation Fund. This is The Nature Conservancyís largest debt ever incurred on a single Block Island transaction.


Anonymous Tim Abbott said...

Pat, the Block Island conservation deal you describe raises more than just eyebrows at the extraordinary costs associated with land protection in such areas with extremely high real estate values.

For starters, TNC's internal funding mechanism has long given that organization great flexibility to close projects before all the donations have been secured. Clearly, in high wealth places like Block Island or the nearby Massachusetts Islands, there is the expectation that those borrowed funds will be reimbursed from local sources. However, the Land Protection Fund or LPF is used by the entire organization, and in recent years its available resources have been almost fully committed. Repayment with interest is usually expected in 36 months, but the Block island case does beg the question of whether hugely expensive projects like this should be tapping the LPF, or instead developing and leveraging other sources of funding so that projects in less wealthy areas - but no less deserving of conservation funding -have secure access to internal LPF loans.

A second consideration is more philosophiocal: namely,whether
the conservation value of the land protected on Block Island is worth the effort and expense required to conserve it. I mean no disrespect toward what are clearly deeply important cultural, aesthetic, and ecological values associated with land on Block Island. A great deal of protection has taken place there, and clearly there are donors willing to support such expensive protection projects. But I would hope that there is also an open and honest assessment by TNC, as a global conservation organization with many priorities, of whether it can or should continue to expend such resources on high cost protection in such places, or whether there are other methods to use on Block Island and protection efforts elsewhere that should receive priority.

Of course, just because conservation organizations can raise $12 million dollars for a project on Block Island - or $64 million for another or Martha's Vineyard, for that matter - doesn't mean those resources can be easily reallocated. A unilateral policy of reallocation would in any case challenge the intent of many donors. But setting priorities should challenge TNC to consider alternatives to hugely expensive land deals with small acreages unless those acres are the most irreplaceable and important conservation land the organization could be protecting in that ecoregion. Going to scale, after all, should be going to the "appropriate" scale to conserve the conservation target, and sometimes that doesn't need to be very large.

I also realize that we are dealing with highly relative values here. After all, how does one compare something like a small patch of sandplain grassland in one place with 25,000 acres of boreal forest in another? But surely a conservation vision for the North Atlantic Coast Ecoregion, in which Block Island is a component part, will have to grapple with how much highly expensive land protection can and should be accomplished as part of TNC's overall conservation strategy.

The partnership between TNC and the Block Island Land Trust is commendable. TNC's entire approach to conservation area planning has changed dramatically in the last 20 years. I am sure the Rodman's Hollow area is still a high priority for the Block Island Land Trust, and I'd be interested in knowing how it contributes to Conserving TNC's ecoregional portfolio targets within the North Atlantic Coast.

A friend with TNC on Martha's Vineyard, Tom Chase, has advocated the need there for an "undevelopment" strategy, since most of his "conservastion targets" lack sufficent size or representation on the island to meet minimal viability thresholds. Does this reflect the situation on Block Island as well, and how does protecting these acres contribute toward reaching those viability goals?

I'd be curious to know what others may think.

8:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tim Abbott makes thoughtful, well-informed points. Some random thoughts: As a Rhode Islander who has followed TNC's efforts here for some time, I'm glad to see that they're sticking to priorities and places (Block Island is one of their "10 Last Best Places," or whatever the phrase is)to which they've already devoted their scientific and their financial resources. For better or worse, conservation groups have become big players in the real estate markets of the coastal communities in this region. There seems to be some sense in securing remaining major parcels now, partly to protect the resources already purchased in the same area. The prices seem ridiculous now, but they may appear cheap a few years from now. TNC is doing its job protecting natural resources in these areas. I worry about the cultural prospects of some of these coastal communities, but they will face those challenges anyway simply because of their location. TNC and other organizations should of course be adaptable, but they are probably in a better position than, say, government agencies to carry out long-term acquisition and management policies without being buffeted by shifting political winds or scary real-estate prices.

12:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As someone that lives on Block Island, I can say I am unfortunately in a small minority that doesn't love the Nature Conspiracy oops I meant the Nature Conservancy.

Their preservation efforts push property values higher and higher making the island more and more exclusive.

I appreciate their efforts but think there money can be better spent.

7:25 AM  

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