When they hear our name, North Florida Land Trust, many people ask, “What is a land trust and what do you do?” North Florida Land Trust is a nonprofit land conservation organization. A land trust is defined by the Land Trust Alliance as a community-based, nonprofit organization that actively works to permanently conserve land. At North Florida Land Trust, we are dedicated to protecting and preserving the irreplaceable landscape that surrounds us. We are a community partner. We work with willing landowners to conserve land forever.
We conserve and protect agricultural lands, forests, coastal marshes and shorelines, and wildlife habitats. Every piece of land we save has a benefit to the community. It protects the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the soil we use to grow crops, it provides buffers adjacent to military installations from incompatible uses that would degrade our national security and conserves the habitats that are so important for plants and wildlife. We work to create a healthier planet, to restore some of its lost ecology, to maintain our agricultural and national security, and to make sure everyone has access to natural areas.
A very important part of our operation is the conservation acquisitions activities led by our director, Ramesh Buch. Ramesh manages our real estate and related strategic planning team as they work to identify properties for conservation, generate leads, and build relationships with partners and landowners. He also works closely with the philanthropy and stewardship teams to raise the money needed to buy and manage the property.
We wanted to give you a glimpse into Ramesh, his background, his work, and his strategies for successfully preserving and protecting Florida’s natural spaces.
Ramesh, tell us a little about yourself:
I have been a full-time real estate professional since 1996, focused almost entirely on the protection of environmentally sensitive lands in Florida. I started working with Miami-Dade County’s Department of Environmental Resources Management as an intern in partial fulfillment of my Wildlife and Fisheries Master’s Degree, in 1991. After working for five years as the County’s Biscayne Bay Water Quality program manager, I decided I needed to do something that had more of a legacy feel. I joined Miami-Dade’s Environmentally Endangered Lands Program in 1996 and learned the art of land conservation, saving some of the rarest and most globally imperiled lands in Florida. I then relocated to Gainesville in 2001 for the challenge of standing up and running Alachua County’s Alachua County Forever Land Conservation Program. In 2016, I took the Real Estate Services Director position with the St. Johns River Water Management District for the challenge of working with much larger landscapes, and more complicated deals, that involved outcomes other than purely conservation. The District also acquires lands to restore hydrology, protect aquifer recharge, and provide sites for water quality improvement projects, in addition to the wildlife benefits. I retired from public service in 2021 and joined the North Florida Land Trust as its Director of Conservation Acquisitions. Since 1996, I have completed over 57,300 acres of property transactions worth over $188 million.
What does your typical week look like?
No two days are the same, which is part of the challenge and the thrill. Mondays are spent in the office in Jacksonville usually in meetings with leadership and staff. We connect and discuss the previous week, upcoming events, and any issues with projects we are all working on. The rest of the week may be spent visiting a landowner, talking with them virtually, talking with partners and landowners, making applications to agencies for funding, reviewing real estate due diligence, unsolicited offers of property, and other paperwork, and answering requests from the public for information about land conservation or if we can help them preserve a particular property. The conversations are as varied as the lands and the landowners.
How do you and your team identify properties for conservation?
We have six priority preservation areas that we focus on, and each property is evaluated to determine whether and how well a property fits into those areas. The priority areas include:
- The Osceola to Ocala (O2O) Wildlife Corridor – The O2O is a landscape-scale corridor extending 100 miles connecting the Ocala and Osceola National Forests, anchored by Joint Training Base Camp Blanding. Any property in this boundary is considered eligible.
- Military Readiness and Base Buffering – NFLT works with the U.S. Department of Defense and willing landowners to acquire property or conservation easements on identified parcels that facilitate the continued operation of the multiple installations in our area. These are NAS Jacksonville, Mayport NS, OLF Whitehouse, Blount Island, Pinecastle Bombing Range, and Camp Blanding. We are proud to contribute to our national security in this small way and honor the sacrifices of our military personnel.
- Salt Marsh and Climate Resilience – Salt marshes and coastal habitats have vital benefits to our community including providing fisheries habitat, areas for recreation, buffering hurricane effects, and maintaining climate resilience. Properties that can — or be restored to — contribute to these benefits are priorities.
- Springs, Aquifer Recharge, and Water Quality Improvement – Florida depends on its groundwater for irrigation and drinking water. We are mining old rainfall. The difficulty and expense of cleaning it to a usable quality depends greatly on the watershed upon which the rain falls and the soils through which it percolates. The groundwater is intimately connected to our surface waters which Floridians depend on for recreation, aesthetics, and other uses. NFLT works to protect those lands that contain and support this hydrology that sustains our way of life.
- Working Lands – Food and agricultural security is national security. Local agriculture is good for the economy and for the climate. Having our woodshed, food supply, and fiber production in our backyards is critical to a sustainable way of life. NFLT works with landowners, agricultural producers, communities, and agencies to protect the lands that produce the goods we need.
- Community Conservation – NFLT will work with communities to acquire property that may not fit into any of the preceding PPAs. All we need is a willing landowner, willing funding partners, and community support. A major part of this effort is to work with local government to establish voter-approved funding sources. These are then used to protect conservation and working lands aligned with the community goals.
After you identify properties, how do you connect with landowners?
We connect with landowners in many ways – through word-of-mouth, from working with other landowners, our conservation partners pass along landowners for whom we would be a better fit, the multiple outreach events and talks we participate in, direct mail, and chance encounters.
What is the process for acquiring a property?
It is a normal real estate transaction, familiar to anyone who has purchased a home or land – Just as you would when buying a home, you would evaluate the property to determine how well it fits your goals. You would of course view and evaluate alternatives, so you were getting the best property for your money. You would perform a comparative market analysis or appraisal of the property to determine what the market value for the property is. Once you agree on the price and terms in a contract, you then perform the necessary due diligence such as title search, environmental hazards, site inspection, and survey. If everything checks out, you acquire a title policy to insure your intended uses, and close with the seller. There are a few important distinctions when conservation property is involved, primarily that the uses are wildlife and other natural benefits, or national security and agricultural objectives, rather than as an abode. We would look at the potential and costs of restoring the ecology, hydrology, and other natural functions. For conservation easements, the negotiations can be a little more involved. Essentially, we are entering into a perpetual relationship with the current and all future owners to protect that property. Both the landowner and we must try to envision future uses and craft the easement terms to protect their right to engage in them while not creating unintended pathways for future owners to damage the conservation values of the property. That would be inconsistent with the current owner’s and our mutual goals.
How do you determine if a property is a fee-simple acquisition or a conservation easement?
A fee-simple acquisition is the outright purchase of land and all the rights to use it which belong to the landowner. A conservation easement is the acquisition of just the development rights and any other uses, that if implemented on the property, would impair the natural, agricultural, or other conservation values of the property. Usually, it is the landowner that decides which transaction suits their goals. They can choose a conservation easement to preserve the property, and get some of the value in cash now, all while keeping it in their ownership, and enjoying and using it as they always have. Sometimes they need to divest themselves of it entirely and are willing to give conservation a chance, in which case we purchase it fee-simple. Increasingly we are seeing more land developers turn to us to build conservation outcomes into their plans. Buyers are demanding more green spaces in their neighborhoods and the green infrastructure left intact continues to provide a low-cost alternative for flood protection, outdoor recreation, and a pleasing aesthetic.
How do you determine the funding sources for the properties?
Normally the funding is identified as part of the initial evaluation. Some properties are already in designated funding boundaries such as the Florida Forever Program, the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program, or the Rural Conservation Partnership Program. Sometimes we apply to amend the boundaries so that the property can be included. Occasionally, we must reach out to private sources when the property is not located in an approved area.
How long does it typically take until you close on a property?
On average, a fee-simple deal will take six to eight months, and a conservation easement can take approximately eight to twelve months. Not surprisingly, conservation easements take longer than fee simple purchases since the length of time depends not on the size of the deal, but on its complexity. With easements, we need to understand the current landowner’s goals, discuss their future uses and goals, and craft the easement to protect the conservation values while not impairing their continued use. It can take longer if we need to secure funding, or if the sellers are members of a family or corporation that needs to come to a consensus. Donations of land can take less time because we do not need to get appraisals and have them reviewed, and typically, the terms of a donation are simpler.
How do you decide if the property will become part of NFLT’s portfolio or if another partner will manage the property?
Location, expertise, and capacity are the main determinants. For property adjacent to state property, for example, we might lease it to the State to manage it as a unit of their park or forest. Oftentimes the funding dictates who the manager will be. Typically, the State of Florida manages property where it has a funding role.
What is your favorite thing about the job?
I view negotiations as a collaborative problem-solving exercise. Not as a battle of wills. The landowner is willing but has some requirements, restrictions, and goals that must be met. We also have requirements and restrictions. Working with landowners, bringing in partners and funders to assist, and sealing the deal is something I enjoy. Knowing that I made the map a little greener is really my passion.
Do you have any stories you would like to share about the job?
I have too many stories, epiphanies, and learning moments to choose from. Anyway, picking one would be like choosing who is my favorite child. The deals I reminisce about are typically the ones that have strengthened the bonds with the people I am privileged to work with. I treasure the professional relationships that have evolved into friendships, the mentors and protégés I have celebrated and commiserated with, and the landowners who have trusted us with their lands and conservation visions.
A story that continues to inspire me is not my own, but one that illustrates for me the alchemic nature of this work. An elderly lady owned the green space in the center of a small town. Her ancestors were among the town’s founders and had always allowed the town’s residents to use the property for fairs, recreation, music, stargazing, picnics, and just relaxation. One day she contacted the town and said she was selling the property. She shared with the town the appraisal she had done which indicated the property was worth $2 million. She insisted a donation to the town was out of the question. The Town asked its residents for help coming up with the $2 million purchase price and sent applications to many state and federal agencies for assistance. After a year, they had raised only $1 million, and no state or federal funds were available. Desperate, the town turned to a local land trust who went to visit the landowner. After building some trust with her, she shared that she lived on a small pension and was concerned about the financial welfare of her two children, to whom she was not leaving much of an inheritance. She wanted to sell the property to provide for them and create a college fund for her grandchildren. The land trust suggested the town purchase a life insurance policy worth $2 million, with her kids and grandchildren as the beneficiaries, and pay the premiums using the $1 million they had raised.
This story illustrates two professional principles for me: One, it was only after getting past the lady’s stated position that her needs and her motivations could be understood, and that a solution could be developed. Two, what an ingenious solution it was, turning $1 million into $2 million, preserving a locally important piece of green space, and meeting the landowner’s goals.