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Business Observer Monday, Oct. 3, 2022 1 month ago

Environmental group offers a different take on land deals

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While developers and homebuilders jockey for available land, another group is hard at work on its mission preserving sensitive lands.
by: Brian Hartz Tampa Bay Editor

Not only are developers and entrepreneurs buying land in the region, but counties and conservation groups are, as well, to stave off overdevelopment and preserve wild and working land for future generations. A noble goal, to be sure, though these deals can benefit both buyer and seller.

Christine Johnson, president of the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast — which, over a span of 19 years, has protected more than 19,000 acres in Manatee, Sarasota, Charlotte, Lee and Collier counties — says it’s a common misconception that conservation-minded landowners are resigned to accepting below-market prices if they decide to sell.

“A lot of times,” Johnson says, “what we’re asking landowners for is the gift of time.”

Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast President Christine Johnson. (Courtesy photo)

Groups like Johnson’s rely on a combination of federal, state and local funds, as well as gifts from private donors, to come up with the money to make big land purchases, and it can take months, even years, to piece together a financial package. As an example, Johnson cites the 2016 purchase of Triangle Ranch, a 1,143-acre property in Manatee County that includes a three-mile stretch of the Myakka River.

“Tony Carlton, who we worked with on Triangle Ranch, it took three years, but he got full market value for the sale of his property,” Johnson says. According to the Southwest Florida Water Management District, the purchasing agency, Carlton’s property sold for $2 million. Funds were also contributed by philanthropist Elizabeth Moore.

In a news release, the Conservation Foundation says the Triangle Ranch deal was a crucial victory that has led to increased protection for the Myakka wetlands and the Myakka River’s water quality and biodiversity, in addition to providing greater flood protection for the surrounding area. The acquisition also benefited some 120 species of birds and animals, including the endangered Florida panther and the threatened crested caracara. “This is a collaborative victory for nature, our waterways and our community,” Moore states in the release.

Another little-known fact about land conservation, Johnson says, is property owners don’t have to sell their land outright if they want to have it protected and preserved. They can sell or donate what’s known as a conservation easement.

In such a scenario, Johnson says, the landowner “continues to own the land, but they sell the development rights, and we then hold those development rights and enforce them forever. It’s a great way, for instance, for working lands to stay in working hands, whether they be ranchers, or farmers, or people who’ve held the land for generations and want to continue to have that open land for their families in perpetuity, but also have some money to manage the land.”

The Conservation Foundation can also connect property owners with potential buyers who are interested in acquiring natural lands that already have conservation easements.

“Maybe they want to hunt, maybe they want to fish, maybe they want a place for their family to recreate,” she says. “We call them conservation buyers, and we will help them buy the property subject to a conservation easement.”

Land conservation has proven to be an extremely popular issue with voters — and one of the few that crosses party lines in the current political environment. In the 2020 general election, for example, Manatee County voters overwhelmingly approved, by a margin of 71% to 29%, a new property tax that will create a dedicated fund for land conservation. Voters in Pinellas and Sarasota counties approved similar measures prior to 2020.

“Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t know of any elected official who challenged it,” Johnson says. “It is absolutely a bipartisan issue.”

If you want to do more than vote but don’t have millions of dollars to buy land, the Conservation Foundation welcomes donations of any size and has numerous volunteer opportunities listed on its website. The organization also holds fundraising events throughout the year.

Brian Hartz is the Business Observer’s Tampa Bay editor. He has worked for the publication since 2017. Brian holds a master’s degree in journalism from Indiana University and has been a St. Petersburg resident since 2013. He has also worked for newspapers and magazines in Indiana...

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