Environmentalism

Buying Low

The green real estate boom

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"Be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful," advises the investment guru Warren Buffett. Land conservation groups are taking this advice to heart by snapping up real estate from cash-strapped developers at bargain-basement prices. Under the pressure of plummeting real estate values and a depressed housing market, developers are finding that conservation groups are making them offers they can't refuse.

"Here's the plain fact: Land will never be as cheap as it is right now," Rand Wentworth told USA Today in May. Wentworth is the president of the Land Trust Alliance, a group representing 1,700 conservation trusts. In 2007 conservation groups took more than 2 million acres off the market. That's more land than was developed that year.

This isn't a purely market-driven phenomenon. Like greedy developers during a boom, the land trusts often buy land only to flip it-usually to a state or local government. For example, the Trust for Public Land has cut a deal with a Florida developer to buy a three-acre oceanfront plot once valued at $6.2 million for just $4.4 million. The trust will then sell it to the city of New Smyrna Beach for a public park. The concept of conservation is being stretched a bit here, since the city plans to build a parking lot and bathrooms for beachgoers on the parcel.

In Minnesota another prospect emerged when a plan to sell a 70-acre summer camp to a developer for $5 million fell through. Now the Trust for Public Land is seeking grants from various Minnesota state agencies to buy it for $3.8 million. Once the deal's done, the land will be transferred to the city of Chisago, Minnesota, for a public park.