Why should real estate agents care about endangered species?

According to Shirley Commons-Long, a Realtor in Huntington Beach, Calif., "when a road is delayed, housing isn't finished, land is taken out of use, and traffic is so gridlocked that economic development is impeded, we are harmed."

It is not that real estate agents should not be concerned with protecting plants and animals, but neither developers nor environmentalists are happy with the way the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the Department of Interior are handling things, she said.

"Consider that, when the law was enacted in 1973, 109 species were on the endangered list," she said. "In addition to the 1,200 on the list now, there are 250 candidates and 4,000 more considered species of concern.

"Yet in almost 30 years, only 23 endangered species have recovered," Commons-Long said.

"We need to provide incentives for property owners to preserve endangered species' habitats as well as opportunities for citizens to be involved in the process," she said. "There also has to be improved science for the determination of endangered species, as well as peer review."

David L. Bernhardt, the Interior Department's congressional liaison, agrees the government could do a better job.

"Species recovery now depends on the preservation of habitats on federal land," Bernhardt said. "Yet more than half of these species have 80 percent of their habitats on private land.

"We need a way of encouraging people to be stewards of private land," he said.

"One of the biggest challenges is court rulings," he said. "The act comes with mandatory deadlines, but we can't meet them because we lack the funding." Environmentalists sue Interior over unmet deadlines. That prevents the department from doing an adequate job of determining the economic impact of court rulings, "so we are sued by the landowners," he said.

"We need to retool our thinking," Bernhardt said. "We have to see it as a stewardship issue, and provide financial incentives to the states and private entities to bring things about."

Until recently, the impact of endangered-species protection on property values was a matter of conjecture.

However, a study that was conducted by the Washington State University Center for Real Estate Research for the National Association of Realtors and presented at the group’s New Orleans meeting in November found that the impact of the Endangered Species Act is generally greater on developed land than on undeveloped property, said Glenn Crellin, the center director who conducted the study.

Crellin studied changes over time in land prices on thousands of privately held parcels in three Washington State counties that have been affected most by limits on development caused by the act and smart-growth initiatives.

For example, development in Clark County, encompassing suburban Portland, Ore., is also being limited by metropolitan Portland's urban-growth boundaries, which are designed to reduce sprawl and refocus on urban areas.

Development in Snohomish County (suburban Seattle) is also affected by the Washington Growth Management Act that was passed in the 1990s.

In the third county, Klallam, less than 40 percent of the land is privately owned, and the county has the Olympic National Park and Forest and an American Indian reservation within its borders.

In his analysis, Crellin compared property values of areas in which the act has little or no impact with comparable high-impact areas, and he found that values of developed land tended to be lower in areas of higher impact in each county.

For example, Crellin found that, in Snohomish County, the value of a single-family house in an area where development is greatly restricted by the Endangered Species Act is 4.2 percent lower than in a comparable area in which there is little or no restriction.

Although participants in the Urban Land Institute forum said there was no national water crisis, they noted that, without a broad-based reduction in consumption and a change in development patterns, problems with water quality and supply would continue.

Charles Groat, director of the U.S. Geological Survey in Reston, Va., said the way land was used directly affected the availability of usable water.

"It's clear that, over the past 50 years, the urban footprint has had an impact that rivals the forces of nature in changing the environmental landscape," Groat said.

Between 1950 and 1980, U.S. water use rose from about 160 billion gallons per day to about 370 billion gallons per day, far outstripping population growth.

Since 1980, water use has declined to about 330 billion gallons per day even though the population continues to rise.

But Groat said the decline was the result of conservation measures for irrigation and thermoelectric-power production. Domestic and public water use has continued to rise.

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