Jerry Paulson, executive director of the Natural Land Institute, can look at a map of Winnebago County and point to properties he wishes his group could have bought and preserved for future generations — but wasn't able to, with land such a hot commodity during the housing boom. That's not the case now.
Jerry Paulson, executive director of the Natural Land Institute, can look at a map of Winnebago County and point to properties he wishes his group could have bought and preserved for future generations.
“But there was so much development — the price (of the land) was just too high or there were too many groups bidding on it,” said Paulson, whose group is celebrating its 50th year in existence and has restored more than 12,000 acres of prairies, forests, wetlands and river corridors in Illinois and Wisconsin.
“There were a lot of properties we would have loved to get control of.”
But times changed quickly. After years of record real estate sales, lenders were battered by a wave of foreclosures, forcing them to raise lending standards and locking many buyers out of the housing market.
It left scores of new homes unsold and idled home builders — some of whom were looking to unload land for which they paid top dollar just a few years ago.
And it opened the door for conservation groups around the country and in the Rock River Valley.
In December, for example, the Trust for Public Land, which buys properties for conservation groups and then holds them until the groups have secured financing, bought nearly 61 acres at 6569 Burr Oak Road from Rubloff Development for $762,000 and then turned around and sold it to the Natural Land Institute and Forest Preserve District.
“That was land they were looking to put houses on, and if the real estate market was better they probably would have worked a lot harder to develop it,” Paulson said.
And the housing market shows no sign of improving — good news for conservation groups, less so for developers. In 2007, builders in Boone and Winnebago counties filed 1,017 permits for new homes — the fewest in at least 15 years, according to the Home Builders Association of the Greater Rockford Area. And through June 2008, just 165 had been filed.
Locally, several groups have taken advantage of the less competitive land market, including the Rockford Park District, Boone County Conservation District, Byron Forest Preserve District and Flagg-Rochelle Community Park District.
But Mick Johnston, director of operations for the Boone County Conservation District, said the economic slump works both ways.
“It’s true the lands are much more available now,” Johnston said. “But if you’re a tax-supported group, property taxes are not coming in like you budgeted for, and that makes it difficult to buy.”
The Boone district, in fact, already asked voters to increase its tax levy, from 8 cents to 10 cents per $100 of assessed valuation. It was defeated handily, 74 percent to 26 percent, in February.
Still, the group was able to buy 40 acres in Capron for $280,000 last October and an adjacent 40 acres this June for $490,000 using grant money. The Corporation for Open Lands bought another 40-acre parcel on U.S. 20 in Garden Prairie in April and is holding it until the Boone district receives more grants.
Todd Tucker, director of the Byron Forest Preserve District, said he has fielded a lot more calls from hopeful sellers in the past two years and turned down most. He said there’s a “perception that (park and forest preserve districts) are the only ones out there with money.”
In fact, Tucker said the Byron district had to secure a bank loan to buy nearly 55 acres along Illinois 2 near Oregon for $700,000 in April.
“That was a property we were going to go after even in a hot housing market. But we’re going to be paying that loan back for a couple of years, so we have to be very careful,” Tucker said. “We’re like a business in that we can’t spread ourselves too thin.”
Tim Dimke, Rockford Park District executive director, said the $1.14 million his organization spent in 2007 on more than 30 acres on Elmwood Road near Sportscore 1 in Rockford wouldn’t have been possible without more than $800,000 in grants and donations to offset the cost. Although he agreed the depressed housing market is a major factor, he said good old-fashioned philanthropy is playing a part as well.
“I’d say the green movement by the aging baby boomer generation is an equal force,” Dimke said. “As they age and think about their legacy, many are taking land that could be developed and making sure it becomes parks and forest preserves. They want to leave something behind.”
Alex Gary can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (815) 987-1339.
Conservation, park district deals
Conservation groups and park and forest preserve districts have picked up several properties as the demand for new housing slows. Here is a list of deals struck in 2007 and 2008.
Date recorded, acres, address/land, municipality, cost, buyer
June 26, 40 acres, Norris Lane, Capron, $490,000, Boone County Conservation District
April 28, 40.13 acres, 9146 U.S. 20, Garden Prairie, $625,000, Corporation for Open Lands
Jan. 11, N/A, 6550 N. Illinois 2, $700,000, Byron Forest Preserve District
Jan. 4, 61 acres, 6569 Burr Oak Road, Roscoe, $762,000, Natural Land Institute and Winnebago County Forest Preserve District
Nov. 15, 2007, 6.5 acres, Jones Road and Ninth Street, Rochelle, $325,000, Flagg-Rochelle Community Park District
Nov. 5, 2007, 40.1 acres, Norris Lane, Capron, $280,000 Boone County Conservation District
June 1, 2007, 20 acres, 1265 and 1399 Elmwood Road, Rockford, $643,000, Rockford Park District
March 20, 2007, N/A, 3237 Wilderness Road, Oregon, $332,612, Illinois Department of Natural Resources
March 7, 2007, 10 acres, 1694 Elmwood Road, Rockford, $507,000, Rockford Park District
Source: Register Star real estate database