Planning & Development

Frequently Asked Questions About Open Space

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by Josh Wood Sunday October 19, 2008

In a couple of weeks Cranston voters will vote on a city open space bond. Here are some common questions regarding the acquisition of land for open space using public funds. This excerpt comes from a document written by Michael Frank for the Heritage Conservancy. The Heritage Conservancy is an organization that has preserved thousands of acres and historic sites and also created environmental, open space and feasibility studies for the sole purpose of improving the quality of throughout southeastern Pennsylvania.

Won’t land preservation purchases stop development?


It is certain that these land purchases will not stop development. That would be an
unrealistic goal. There’s too much land and too little money. Land and easement
purchases have helped preserve the important parts of our communities. Growth may
be inevitable…sprawl is not.

Do all new residential developments result in costs to the community?


Age restricted homes for people beyond their child bearing years contribute to the school tax revenues with no or negligible costs to the public school system. Expensive homes with high income households are likely to have a smaller or no net costs to the system. However, there are few communities where the bulk of the housing development is comprised of very wealthy or childless households.

Aren’t these land preservation efforts too little and too late for many
communities?


If we accept that the idea that development will not be stopped and that all remaining undeveloped land will not be preserved, we can focus on what can be achieved rather than what cannot. There are notable examples of municipalities that have protected significant portions of their communities. Buckingham Township, Bucks County, has set a goal of preserving 20 percent of its land area. By the end of 1999, 2,850 acres had been preserved through actions of the township, the county, the state, conservation organizations and private citizens. Township, county and state programs had been used to protect 3,651 acres or 21 percent of Solebury Township’s land area by the middle of 2001.

Is there any rhyme or reason to what’s preserved?


A plan for land preservation is essential… The community’s goals should be clear. Programs may be designed to preserve key pieces of ground, such as a great site for active or passive recreation uses, a unique stand of trees, productive farms, an historic site, significant habitats of flora and fauna, groundwater recharge areas or a greenbelt around a village. It might be determined to preserve as much land as possible with the money available or focus on more expensive land located in the path of development. A municipality may choose to purchase land or just the development rights to achieve its goals. Always, it is important for program
goals to be identified and promoted so that residents will understand and support the program.

Won’t developers just jump to other properties?


If Parcel A is preserved and unavailable, it is likely developers will be interested in Parcel B. First of all, if Parcel A is important to the community, the preservation of that piece has merit regardless of the development of B. However, reality is that the owners of Parcel B or C or D may not be ready to sell. The owner of Parcel A may need to sell for a variety of reasons. That owner may only need to sell the development rights, which could keep the land open and in his or her possession. Over time, the owners of Parcels B, C and D may want to have the option to participate in the land preservation program, rather than selling for development.

Will the community incur additional and ongoing costs after the
purchases?


If the community purchases land for parkland or active recreation, costs to provide and maintain the recreation facilities and programs should be expected. Where conservation easements are purchased and the land remains in private ownership, the costs to the community will be minimal for activities such as annual monitoring.

Does land preservation benefit only rich landowners and affluent
communities?
It has also been charged that land preservation using public funds is an elitist concept, which benefits only rich landowners or affluent communities. However, many farmers are land rich but cash poor, and these programs keep their options open. Although there is often a developer to sell to, an important option would be to be able to sell development rights and continue to farm the land. In addition, the people who are impacted the most by rapidly rising school taxes are the elderly and those who live on fixed incomes. Control of school costs is important in areas where households typically have modest incomes. Parks and open space are important in all communities.

Won’t it take 50 years or more to realize the savings to the school
systems?
Rapid growth in a community often takes place in about a 25-year period. Part way
into that period, the demand for new and expanded school facilities presses on the
community. Land preservation’s positive fiscal effects will begin in that relatively short period of rapid growth.

Do taxpayers ever vote to increase taxes?
There is always concern about raising taxes. However, voters have approved referenda for land preservation in many areas. Farmland preservation and open space protection are accepted and understood public purposes.

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