Restoring wetlands for profit; Preservation: Conservationists and investors join forces to return 190 acres of farmland to its original state as a swamp.


SKINNERS NECK -- Ned Gerber and Richard Pritzlaff are surveying a muddy corner of a just-harvested cornfield, marking out what will become a 40-acre tract of tidal wetlands and woods, restored with wild millet, tickseed sunflowers, Indian grass, hackberry, persimmon and other native plants and trees that once flourished on the rural Kent County peninsula near Rock Hall.

If all goes according to plan, the 190-acre property on Skinners Neck -- known since the 1830s as Spencer Farm -- will be preserved through an unusual partnership that includes the Chesapeake Wildlife Heritage, the Maryland Environmental Trust and four private investors who are bent on using free-market forces and for-profit motivation to achieve conservation goals.

With development rapidly gobbling up open farmland all over the Eastern Shore, conservationists say they would like to propose similar deals to augment charitable or government grants or agricultural land preservation programs that typically are bound by easements prohibiting development for 10 to 30 years.

"Obviously, we can't go around doing this kind of thing for every 200-acre farm on the Shore, but it is another tool, another option," says Gerber, director of the nonprofit wildlife heritage group. "For a wildlife biologist, it's nice to be working on a property that's permanently protected -- knowing that 10 or 20 years down the road, somebody isn't going to come in and put up a bunch of houses."

The project began in the spring with the formation of Spencer Farm LLC. The four partners bought the property for $475,000, supplementing $280,000 of their cash with an interest-free loan of $220,000 from the Maryland Environmental Trust. That left about $25,000 in working capital.

Chesapeake Wildlife plans a restoration project over the next 18 months to three years. Plans include draining a man-made duck pond to allow tides to ebb and flow naturally at the headwaters of Herringtown Creek.

In its place will be a stand of trees that will form a buffer between remaining farmland and restored marsh.

"It's a little like going back and learning from our mistakes," Gerber says. "The pond was done 15 or 20 years ago, probably in the name of conservation. Fortunately, you'd never get permits for something like that today."

When the restoration is completed, the partnership will sell a permanent easement to the state that will allow a maximum of two houses to be built on the property. Most of the funding will be from state and federal sources.

For investor Jack Taylor, the Spencer Farm effort made sense. A Vermont businessman, Taylor quit a career in manufacturing -- "everything from automatic pool vacuums to parts for window shades" -- to look for what he considers socially responsible projects that could turn a profit.

"What we're talking about is a marriage between for-profit and nonprofit that allows us to do a great deal of conservation in a way that allows continued economic gain," says Taylor, treasurer of Vermont Land Trust.

Taylor has invested in similar projects through the Vermont Forest Conservation Fund, which buys tracts of timberland, setting aside portions with conservation easements, but allowing logging in what Taylor calls "a sustainable fashion."

Pritzlaff, who works as the heritage foundation's manager of landowner services and is one of the project's investors, says tax incentives, compensation for farmland that is taken out of production and a $40,000 payment for the easement effectively drops the purchase price to about $380,000.

When wetlands restoration work is completed, the next step will be finding a buyer willing to pay $500,000 to live in a wildlife management area that can never be developed.

"We've already been in touch with several people," Pritzlaff says.

"Clearly, this is not for everyone, but we definitely feel there is a market for this kind of project."

He says the partnership would like to do "a couple" of similar projects a year, with existing landowners or by purchasing land and reselling it.

State officials see a future for similar projects.

Nick Williams, coordinator of land trust assistance for the Maryland Environmental Trust, says his agency has helped finance land purchases by local chapters of the Izaak Walton League in Frederick and Montgomery counties. In both cases, members bought land adjacent to wildlife preserves the league owned.

Pub Date: 9/27/99

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