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County Shouldn't Be In the Swampland Business

Why should the taxpayers foot the bill for the Nature Conservancies projects?

It was an Oscar-worthy performance. Beating back tears, the Nature Conservancy's Ellen Lott  that  Council save 130 acres of woodland in Upper Mount Bethel. 

"I am here to speak for the trees because they have no tongues." She also claimed to speak for salamanders, frogs and "a place where raptors soar overhead and water trickles down."

The trees, lizards and chicken hawks need your dough, and they got it, too. 

After hearing Lott compare Ron Angle country to the Amazon rain forest, it was unanimous, the presiding council of your money to save the salamanders.

Angle was at his son's high school graduation, and did not vote.

When this first came up before Northampton County Council, in early June, ideological opposites Ann McHale and Ron Angle were both concerned about the high cost, and the matter was tabled. But two weeks later, with Angle MIA, Council was told the property had already been appraised at $6,932 per acre, and would be appraised again down the road.

Council bought it, for a few weeks anyway. Fortunately, Angle came to the rescue last Thursday … but we’ll get to that a little later.

Lack of independent appraisals

What Lott failed to make clear was that the appraisal of the properties were hardly independent. The Conservancy, which is already seeking taxpayer funds and has a vested interest, hires these appraisers.

I looked over the two appraisals done for the 130 acres under consideration. They were done without 2010 census figures and assume that this area is experiencing rising incomes and property values. The only thing that has been rising is the unemployment rate, which has gone from 4.4% in 2007 to 9.3% in 2010.

Another problem with these appraisals is that, incredibly, they use prime farmland sales to do comparables, including a recent purchase by Angle.

Finally, these appraisals fail to note that a 108-acre tract in these 130 acres, owned by Kirkridge, is already subject to a federal easement for the Appalachian Trail. That imposes severe restrictions on the entire tract, making it unattractive to a potential developer.

Independent appraiser: Get a second opinion

Baffled, I spoke to Chip Turtzo, a certified real estate appraiser with 40 years of experience in the Slate Belt. 

"Like a doctor or anything else, you'd want to get a second opinion," he said. 

Speaking hypothetically, Turtzo added that prime farmland in this area is worth around $5,000 per acre; swampland is worth considerably less.

But what the hell does a state-certified appraiser with 40 years experience know, damn it? 

Council Reverses Course

That brings us back to . With Angle back in action and no environmentalists in the peanut gallery, there was a sudden about face.

Angle proposed halting any action unless two independent appraisals are done, and Ann McHale added an amendment demanding that the landowner pay for them. 

Why Doesn't the Nature Conservancy Buy This Land?

Executive John Stoffa thinks it might be too late to stop this grant, but if it's possible, it should be cut off.

After all, the Nature Conservancy has more than ample resources to buy the property on its own. It raised over $637 million in 2009, with $69 million in fundraising expenses. 

It's safe to say that the Conservancy is green in more ways than one. 

We're not. I'm all for open space, but have a problem with open wallets.

Tara Zrinski July 13, 2011 at 03:08 PM
Wow, Bernie, you make a good argument. Initially I would have said the $240,600 isn't that much -- I am all for conservation of wild lands- but, if the conservancy has all this money why do they need a grant? Why don't they buy the land? What is the $637 million dollars designated for....are their expenses that high? Did they make bad investments....what is the problem that they are trying to tap the council. I just don't get it. Maybe you know.
Helene Whitaker July 14, 2011 at 02:05 AM
A lot of people forget - or choose to forget - that the voters voted overwhelmingly to save open space. But nevermind the public; those damned tree-huggers!

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