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Great Lakes Article:

Fund to help trusts acquire property

By DON BEHM

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Last Updated: Jan. 25, 2002

A $3.75 million Great Lakes Revolving Loan Fund to be announced today will give land trusts and municipalities a more equal footing with developers when competing for the acquisition of high quality natural areas along coastal areas or river basins in the lakes' watershed, a national conservation group said.

The fund could help protect $15 million worth of pristine land in the next five years as the money circulates between projects in the region, said Margaret Kohring, Midwest director of The Conservation Fund.

Land trusts and local governments lack the large cash reserves that would allow them to respond quickly to a land sale, Kohring said in explaining the need for the program. While they wait for state, federal or foundation grants to be awarded, opportunities can slip away to another bidder with the necessary capital.

"We've had some handshake deals fall through due to a lack of funds or someone receiving a better offer," said Steve Seyfert, executive director of the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust in West Bend.

"As land values increase, it is becoming harder and harder to come up with the money needed to buy natural areas in the time frame of a few months that most landowners want," Seyfert said.

For that reason, land trusts limit the number of projects they undertake so that they do not have to back out of a deal after signing an offer to purchase, he said. Such a strategy reduces the amount of land that can be protected from development, however.

Christine Thisted, executive director of the Ice Age Park and Trail Foundation in Milwaukee, said her statewide land trust takes a cautious approach when taking on new purchases.

"We haven't pursued acquisitions unless we had the money lined up," Thisted said. "A fund like this would open up additional opportunities."

Most land trusts request state Stewardship grants to pay up to half the costs of acquisitions, though the approval process can take several months, or longer, according to Seyfert. Each step of the way, landowners must be reassured the deal will be made.

"Now, with this fund, we can close a purchase while continuing to work at fund raising," Seyfert said. Purchase of Milwaukee River shoreline is one of the land trust's top priorities, and he expects to put the revolving loan fund to use.

Ellen Gennrich, president of the Waukesha Land Conservancy in Brookfield, said land trusts never know when someone will call with an offer to sell land.

"And then we scramble for funds," Gennrich said. "The potential is always there to lose a property if we can't get the funding together soon enough."

The Waukesha Land Conservancy is aware of at least five significant natural areas in the Lake Michigan watershed in that county. "We certainly are interested in protecting them in the future," Gennrich said. "So, this revolving loan fund is good news."

The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation created the revolving loan fund with the largest environmental grant ever awarded - $3.97 million - by the Flint, Mich., foundation.

The fund will provide loans between $25,000 and $1.25 million that must be repaid within 12 to 18 months, Kohring said. Interest rates will be 1% below the prime rate, and loans will be administered by The Conservation Fund's Midwest office in Sawyer, Mich.

The Mott foundation expects to add another $3.75 million to the fund over several years, swelling the available conservation bankroll to $7.5 million, Kohring said. The foundation was established in 1926 by industrialist Charles Stewart Mott, a General Motors pioneer and former mayor of Flint.

Appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Jan. 25, 2002.

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