The real estate gold rush makes it difficult for conservation groups to acquire land

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Conservationists say the blistering real estate market that began to heat up early in the pandemic has made land in Maine harder to obtain.

Many land trusts in Maine operate to strict standards developed by the Land Trust Alliance, a national organization that accredits land protection groups across the state. The standards require trusts to obtain independent property valuations and only pay for the true value of the property.

The rules ensure donor funds are spent wisely and prevent trusts from entering into land bidding wars.

But in the current market, where land can sell well above its asking price, land trusts can be left in the dust, said Chrissy Allen, development director at Blue Hill Heritage Trust.

The Trust is currently nearing its fundraising goal of $1.2 million to purchase Wallamatogus Mountain, a scenic peak in Penobscot. But hopes of getting another plot that would have connected the land to another nearby conservation property were dashed when the owner wanted to sell for more than the appraised value.

“It makes the competition a lot stiffer for us,” she said.

The time it can take trusts to secure properties also puts them at a disadvantage in the current market. Trusts often have to obtain internal approval to search for properties, get a valuation, and then raise funds for the purchases, a process that can sometimes take years.

The fundraiser for the Wallamatogus pack, which the Blue Hill Trust is buying, is expected to conclude soon, nearly a year after it began. This timeline is considered fast for the field.

The surge that land trusts are facing isn’t new, but the fast-paced, growing market that has taken hold in Maine has taken it to the extreme, said Ciona Ulbrich, a senior project manager for the Maine Coast Heritage Trust.

“We can’t pay for what the market normally does,” she said. “We’re missing some important opportunities.”

The Maine Coast Heritage Trust helped Penobscot secure 192 acres of vacant woodland in March but – like the Blue Hill Land Trust – missed an opportunity to purchase another small contiguous property that would have been connected to other conservation areas as it was in just a few days has been sold unseen days.

But through a stroke of luck, the new owner decided it wasn’t a good fit and sold it to the city, which closed the property earlier this month.

Most situations don’t have happy endings like this, and when a landowner does not wish to have their property listed it can be difficult to persuade the owners to sell their property for less in a process that takes much longer.

A lack of surveyors conducting conservation assessments in Maine has also helped hold things up and made the process even longer.

“There’s a major crisis developing in the state of Maine,” Allen said. “It slows things down and makes it difficult to conserve land.”

Ulbrich hoped that seeing land being eroded left and right might spark their interest in land conservation.

“It makes people more aware of the importance of some conservation,” she said. “I think that sense is much more pronounced in these crazier markets.”

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