Environment
12:30 pm
Mon September 30, 2013

As Seacoast Development Booms, Water Quality Could Bust

While development trends vary slightly from town to town, in general development is on the rise, and in many communities speeding up
While development trends vary slightly from town to town, in general development is on the rise, and in many communities speeding up
Credit Sam Evans-Brown / NHPR

Meanwhile, many of the stresses that threaten water quality – more waste-water, increased runoff from pavement, and fewer forests to naturally filter water – increase hand-in-hand with development. Those in the conservation community say the cheapest route is to keep water clean by putting land into conservation, instead of trying to clean it up after it’s already a mess. No-where is the tension between environmental quality and more acute, than on the seacoast, in the communities of the Great Bay.

In the conservation community, there’s a feeling that there’s this constant race happening. In one lane are developers, buying up open space and building it up. In the other, is conservation, putting those plots aside for perpetuity.

That race is going fastest on the seacoast.

“For many of these communities they are going to reach essentially full build out within the next 40 or 50 years,” says Derek Sowers, manager of the conservation program for PREP, the Piscataqua Region Estuaries Partnership.

Full-build out: as in there’s nowhere to build a building without tearing an old one down.

The Seacoast is rushing towards that future faster than anywhere in the state. Data from UNH show the amount of roofs and pavement in the Great Bay watershed has more than doubled in the last twenty years, and between 2005 and 2010 the rate of development also doubled.

So in a bull market what does it take for a plot of land to wind up in conservation instead of being built up? Let’s look at one example in Durham.

Sprucewood Forest

Back before the market crashed, Jack Farrell and a group of partners were trying to develop Sprucewood forest, 176 acres of forested land connected to thousands more acres of undeveloped space.

“We ended up with a lot of support to do a fairly significant mixed use development, that would be a combination of student housing, some office-research, some regular housing perhaps,” explains Farrell, “A very significant development, which would have enhanced the town’s tax base to a very great degree.”

But unlike many developments in the region, this one came off the rails. The economy went down, and the locals started to turn out against the project.

"To be a really successful developer, you have to be tough and you have to go up against all sorts of opposition, and frankly I don’t have the stomach for that."

“The Durham residents recognized the value of protecting their water supply,” says Greg Caporossi with the Trust for Public Land, “They recognized that is a critical component to their quality of life and the growth of their community.”

Caporossi and his organization shepherded this parcel through the conservation process, water quality was on everyone’s minds, using the importance of the land in terms of water quality as a core argument in many of the grants it applied for. The project would have abutted the Oyster River where Durham gets its drinking water, and sits right on top of an aquifer the town is eying for expansion of the town’s needs.

But the community pushback was not the only factor in turning back the development. It also helped that developer Jack Farrell is also an environmentalist and a local.

“To be a really successful developer, you have to be tough and you have to go up against all sorts of opposition. Take it again and again and keep coming back and go to the lawyers and that kind of thing, “he says, “And frankly I don’t have the stomach for that.”

Farrell convinced his partners to give up on the development.

The land, appraised for four and a half million, and was with the help of two big conservation organizations, the Trust for Public Land and the National Resource Conservation Service, at a $500,000 dollar discount. To make the purchase the groups cobbled together funding with the biggest chunk coming from federal conservation funds under the farm bill, and the rest from state and local sources, including a few hundred thousand from the town of Durham itself.

But that half-million write-off didn’t come close to how much Farrell and company left on the table. “One of my partners would say we also lost the opportunity to develop the property and make a lot more,” says Farrell.

But How Often Does Conservation Triumph?

It was a big win for the conservation community. But it took everything falling into place for it to happen: an environmentally-minded developer, a strong group of concerned citizens, and access to conservation money. That doesn’t always happen.

While open space still dominates the seacoast, much of it has become fragmented in recent decades, which renders that space less effective in terms of "ecosystem services" like clean water.
While open space still dominates the seacoast, much of it has become fragmented in recent decades, which renders that space less effective in terms of "ecosystem services" like clean water.
Credit Sam Evans-Brown / NHPR; Data: UNH Complex Systems Research Center

The seacoast is on track to put 20% of its land in conservation by 2020, but more than 75 percent of the region is still undeveloped, and most of it is privately held, and up for grabs.

“A recent Forest Service Report found that our region in particular, the seacoast region of New Hampshire and Southern Maine, was the most vulnerable region in the US for declining water quality associated with the conversion of private forest land to residential development,” says Derek Sowers of PREP.

And even though the region is on track to meet PREP’s goals for conservation in general, only 20 percent of new conservation projects are happening in the most important wetlands – the big, undisturbed areas, like the plot in Durham. The group thinks it will fall well short of its goal of preserving 75 percent of those lands by 2025.

And as the housing market starts to heat up again, the race between development and conservation is going to get a whole lot faster.

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