Land Preservation Programs Survive the Ax
By Penny Riordan, Special to Stateline
Even though most states face major budget problems, voters and state government leaders have shown that preserving land from development is a top priority, no matter what the cost.
All across the country, expensive land acquisition programs have survived the budget ax and continue to receive full funding. In addition, voters at the local level have approved ballot initiatives calling for tax hikes and bond sales to preserve their communities from development.
"Just because the economy is in a tumble, it doesn't mean that people are less committed to protecting the special places where they live," said Adam Eichberg, the associate national director of conservation finance for the Trust for Public Land. "The economy hasn't slowed down the development community, so people are still trying to protect their land."
In November of 2002, 141 out of 189 conservation-related ballot initiatives passed in communities in 28 states. These measures generated $10 billion in land conservation funding. Out of that $10 billion, $5.7 billion went specifically to land acquisition and restoration, according to a joint study published by the Trust for Public Land and the Land Trust Alliance.
A majority of these ballot measures were initiated by local governments, with bond sales the most popular means of raising money for land preservation, followed by property tax increases, according to the study.
In the West, California and Colorado have taken the lead. California has passed two statewide measures authorizing the sale of bonds for coastal land protection. On the East Coast, many cities and towns in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts have passed tax increases or bond sales to purchase farms or create open space.
The largest local initiative was in Southampton, New York, where voters approved a 10-year two percent tax increase on real estate transactions, that will generate $200 million to protect open space in that coastal community.
Local land preservation programs have become so popular in recent years that many states have provided matching funds through state bond sales. At a time when state legislators are trimming budgets in every way possible, land preservation has enjoyed a measure of immunity because the money often doesn't come out of general revenue.
One state program spared from cuts is the largest land preservation program in the country: Florida Forever.
The 10-year, $3-billion dollar program earmarks $300 million a year from bond sales for additions to state parks, water resource development and provides matching grants for local land preservation programs.
"In a state like Florida that is growing as fast as it is, people can see land in their community disappearing every day. The legislature also recognizes because of rapid development we don't have a lot of time -- the land we buy now not might not be available in five years," said Will Abberger, associate director of the Trust for Public Land Southeast regional office.
The Florida program has survived a few minor attempts by the General Assembly to raid bond sale revenues. It has bipartisan support in a state with a history of supporting conservation, but also a history of sloppy development.
"This is a state that has done less than a good job of growth management," said Mark Glisson, staff director for acquisition and restoration council with Florida's Department of Environmental Protection. "We've realized we can't control [growth] with development rules and regulations so all we can do is buy it."
Bond sales are a relatively non-controversial way to generate money, Glisson said.
" It's extremely popular with all the voters, it's not competing with education or child care funding," he told Stateline.org.