Conservation Cutbacks Force States to Pass on Buyers' Market
By David Harrison, Staff Writer
Not long ago, when new subdivisions and strip malls were mushrooming across Florida, conservationists could pin their hopes on a state program that bought and preserved parcels of land before the bulldozers got to them. The Florida Forever initiative, begun in 2001, received roughly $300 million a year in state funding, which allowed Florida to buy more than 652,000 acres and preserve habitat for hundreds of endangered species.
A lot has changed since then. Development pressure has practically vanished: The number of housing permits issued in Florida dropped by 42 percent between 2008 and 2009. Meanwhile, the state's budget, which is hurting because of the housing bust, no longer can afford to spend big bucks on conservation. Last year, for the first time, Florida Forever received no funding at all. This year, the legislature found just $15 million for the program, after heavy lobbying from Governor Charlie Crist.
Florida isn't the only state where the weak economy has led to a truce in longstanding battles between real estate developers and conservationists. Tennessee has diverted funding for land conservation to fill budget gaps in recent years. In North Carolina, a land acquisition program that receives money from real estate transfer taxes saw its funding dry up when the housing market crashed. And in Arizona, voters will decide in November whether to transfer $123 million from a special land-conservation fund into the general fund to plug holes in the state budget.
Environmentalists acknowledge that it's hard to argue for money for land acquisition at a time when essential state services such as education and social services are getting cut. But with land values depressed in many parts of the country, they say, this also is the ideal time to buy. "We're not trying to get in fights over who's more important," says Russell Shay, director of public policy at the Land Trust Alliance. "The opportunity is there, and if we forego it, we're going to pay a lot more in the future."
States also are backing away from bond sales, another vehicle they've used to buy up land. In 2004, at the height of the housing boom, voters approved 162 of 216 state and local ballot initiatives totaling $26 billion for conservation and parks. Much of that activity occurred in Massachusetts and New Jersey, both of which approved legislation offering incentives to local governments whose voters choose to invest in conservation.
Last year, however, only 40 proposals made it onto state and local ballots — 25 of them passed. This year, nine local measures have gone before voters, according to a database maintained by the Trust for Public Land. Seven passed.
The conservation cutbacks point to a dilemma that often bedevils state land programs. Conservation is easiest to fund when times are good but that's also when land prices are the highest. From 1998 to 2005, while real estate prices were running up, the state and federal governments acquired roughly 18.4 million acres of land either through sales or conservation easements.
But when booms go bust and land is cheap, states find themselves with less money to spend. The imperative to buy land to counter development becomes less pressing, as well.
For example, in Arizona, state Representative Warde Nichols seized on the fact that runaway growth has come to a halt as a reason to use money from the state's conservation fund to keep state parks open. "Now that such growth has flat-lined it makes sense to transfer some of the money that is sitting idly in the Land Conservation Fund to keep our parks open and keep important tourism dollars flowing into the state," he wrote in a January op-ed in The Arizona Republic .
Nichols' bill failed. Four state parks have closed.
Some states go shopping
The pullback pattern hasn't been true in every state, however. Wisconsin, for example, is about to boost the bonding authority of a state land stewardship fund by $26 million a year. New Jersey voters last year passed a $400 million bond sale for the purpose of buying up land. And in Virginia, conservationists received an unexpected gift when the housing downturn killed plans for a 1,200-acre development near Charlottesville. Developers who paid $46.2 million for the property in 2005 sold it to the state at the end of last year for $9.8 million and tax credits.Virginia plans to turn the land into a state park.
In New York, Governor David Paterson imposed a moratorium on new land purchases earlier this year and cut the land acquisition budget from $60 million per year down to zero, to the dismay of conservationists and some lawmakers. Last week, Paterson agreed to lift his moratorium and allocate $17 million to land acquisition as part of a deal that would keep open 55 state parks and historic sites targeted for closure. But the agreement also included a $70-million cut to the Environmental Protection Fund, which finances the state's environmental and land conservation efforts. Lawmakers passed the measure on Wednesday.
"I'm certainly disappointed that it can't be more," says Assemblyman Robert Sweeney, the chairman of the Environmental Conservation Committee, which worked with the governor on the deal. "Environmental issues continue to take a disproportionate hit in the budget in New York State."
Despite the cuts, Sweeney is pleased that some amount of land acquisition will continue. And he hopes the state will take advantage of the weak real estate market to snatch up land in the scenic Adirondack Mountains or in the Pine Barrens area of expensive Long Island. "This is the ideal time to be buying land, when the price is depressed," Sweeney says. "We can get it at substantially better rates."