Conservation Financing Comes of Age—Land&People

Shaded by cottonwood and willow, La Verkin and Ash Creeks converge with the Virgin River in a dramatic black basalt canyon just west of Utah's Zion National Park. Fast-growing Washington County, moving to protect the canyon, recently completed the first phase of its Virgin River Confluence Project.

The initial acquisition was small, 125 acres, but its financing was as complex as the canyon ecosystem. County funds were supplemented by contributions from two state sources, one corporation, two foundations, a land preservation association, and a number of private donors. Once limited to big-ticket, large-acreage acquisitions, such multisource funding packages are becoming the norm for even the most typical preservation project.

"Today every deal has three or more funding sources," says Ernest Cook, director of the Trust for Public Land's Conservation Finance Program, "the whole game these days is assembling multiple financing."

Multisource funding is an important trend in itself, reflecting the growth in diverse sources of funding as well as a rapidly expanding pot of preservation money. It is also indicative of growing sophistication in both the conception and implementation of open space preservation. Perhaps its greatest significance, however, is what it says about the coming of age of managed growth.

Simply put, controlling growth has become a local issue. Open space is taking its place alongside roads, schools, and libraries as an integral part of the community fabric. And in consequence, land preservation is coming to be considered a function, and even a responsibility, of local government.

Voting for Open Space

Russell Shay, director of public policy for the Land Trust Alliance, has been tracking such funding initiatives for the past five years. "In 1998," he says, "there were 148 local and state measures to raise land acquisition funds. In 1999, an off-election year, when you'd expect very few, there were 102 referenda. The count for 2000 was 208 initiatives. Eighty-four percent of these were approved, raising an estimated $7.4 billion in funding for open space and parkland acquisition."

Ernest Cook further notes that while state initiatives dominated earlier elections, there were only two statewide measures on the 2000 ballot, in Ohio and Rhode Island, and they were eclipsed by the many local initiatives. "Individually they were small," he says, "but taken together, local governments made an enormous commitment to open space preservation."

Perhaps no phrase is more fraught with peril for local politicians than "tax increase." Yet from Bedford, New York, to Bozeman, Montana, supervisors and selectmen successfully asked residents to raise taxes to protect open space, and with it their community's quality of life. In Montana the issue was preserving Gallatin County's agricultural heritage, while in New York, says George Bianco, chair of a coalition of Bedford civic organizations, voters rallied to save "the key parcels that define the town."

In fact, in many localities elected officials were scrambling to catch up with public sentiment. "The uninterrupted growth of the past decade has swallowed up huge landscapes that people had taken for granted," says Russell Shay. "Local political leaders put initiatives on the ballot because people demanded action in response to the loss of open space."

TPL's Conservation Finance program works closely with state and local governments and citizen groups to gauge public support for open space and to craft ballot initiatives that can generate new sources of funding for conservation. In town after town, county after county, the definitive step in winning political support for a ballot initiative was the polling of local citizens. Support has been overwhelming–not just for preserving open space but for raising taxes to pay for it.

Westchester Reaches Critical Mass

In Westchester County, New York, the poll taken in Bedford had a snowball effect. "We suggested the town conduct a survey," TPL's conservation finance manager Chris Wells says, "to find out what issues–open space, recreation, water quality–preservation would address, and to find out how much people would be willing to spend to preserve local land. The poll revealed a citizenry ready and willing to pay for open space."

News stories about Bedford's support for land preservation resonated throughout the county. Before long, TPL and a reinvigorated Westchester Land Trust (WLT) were discussing strategy with nearly a dozen towns. "There was a critical mass of interest," says Paul Gallay, WLT executive director. "We just got people hooked together." Typical was Somers, New York, where half the households reside in a vast, tax-leery retirement community; more than three-quarters nonetheless expressed a willingness to increase taxes to control growth.

Political support was quick to follow citizen interest. Sy "No New Taxes" Globerman, supervisor of North Salem, New York, simply did the math. "We're looking at $18,000 a year for each student in school," he said. "A house assessed at half a million dollars will pay $12,000 a year in taxes and that house will send two, maybe more kids to school. You run a negative on each new house that's built." For communities faced with that kind of calculation, keeping a lid on development makes sense.

By the end of the summer, seven Westchester towns had voted to place open space funding measures on the November ballot. All were approved, and now a number of other towns are preparing preservation measures for the next ballot opportunity.

Saving Montana's Farmland

The combination of compelling math and a favorable poll were equally critical in Montana's Gallatin County, just north of Yellowstone National Park. With Bozeman's population exploding, the county commission created a 16-member Open Space Task Force, later formalized into an Open Lands Board (OLB), to investigate ways to slow growth.

Ranchland is a good deal for Gallatin County: the county gets to keep roughly three-quarters of every tax dollar collected on agricultural land. But for every dollar collected on newly developed land, the county must spend $1.45 in roads, schools, police protection, and other related services. As older ranchers pass on, however, their descendants often can't afford to hang onto their land. Rancher Mike Lane, a member of the OLB, raises beef cattle and small grains on a large spread that used to be larger. There's a subdivision next door, developed by Lane's father so the family would be able to pay inheritance taxes. "Inheritance taxes drive a lot of development," Lane says, "and the clock is ticking."

One solution would be for Gallatin to purchase development rights on active farmland. Ranchers get an infusion of cash, to offset future inheritance taxes, for instance. The assessed value of their land goes down. And they still have the land needed to continue ranching. But where would the money come from?

A poll found that 70 percent of the county's residents would increase their property taxes to help slow growth and preserve their farming heritage. A $10 million bond issue passed last November, and Gallatin's success may well have a ripple effect. "There are five or six other counties experiencing the same challenges we are with growth," says Brent Morris, executive director of the Gallatin County Open Lands Board. "This will be the model for Montana and other western states."

Not long ago, the idea of Westerners paying to preserve open space was oxymoronic. Phyllis Myers, president of State Resource Strategies, a Washington, D.C. consulting firm, has been tracking land preservation issues for years. When she started, the West had few open space ballot issues, and those few had a low approval rate. Today there are more and their approval rate is higher. "This is a switch," she says, "a very interesting switch." The key difference may be that most of these initiatives are local. They're not about creating national monuments; they're about saving the farm down the road.

Local-State Synergy

The residents of both Bozeman and Bedford hope to leverage their local funding with help from their state. "Both Montana and New York State have matching-funds programs for land preservation," says Kim Hopper, who is preparing a TPL report on conservation finance, "and more and more foundations are investing in open space and managed growth."

Indeed, leveraging may be the financial fire that's making land preservation percolate. Local conservation is now getting help from Washington. For the first time, Congress has made a multiyear commitment to open space funding that, in addition to protecting national parks, forests, and wildlife refuges, provides matching grants to states and local communities to secure landscapes ranging from neighborhood parks to forestland. And more and more states are adding their own matching funds to the mix, stimulating counties and towns to enact local funding measures.

When New Jersey committed $1 billion to the preservation of one million acres of open space in 1999, local governments were eager to tap into state funds. Since then, 19 of New Jersey's 21 counties have created open space trust funds to become eli- gible for state grants. Similarly, Florida's Preservation 2000 has led to voter-approved tax increases in dozens of municipalities and counties. As a result, more than half of state preservation grants to local governments are being matched dollar for dollar, expanding open space protection even further.

Last November, Broward County just north of Miami, asked voters to approve a bond referendum worth $400 million. Scott Park, natural resource specialist in the Broward County Department of Planning and Environmental Protection, keeps track of privately held undeveloped land in Florida's fastest-growing county. "We have 1,400 acres of open space left, and it's going at the rate of 400 acres a year," he says. "In three or four years it will all be gone." Open space is at such a premium that some bond money will go to un-develop land–to tear down waterfront buildings to reclaim space for a riverfront park. Voter approval surpassed 73 percent.

Perhaps nowhere is the synergy between state and local funding stronger than in Georgia. In 1999, stung by the effects of sprawl surrounding Atlanta, Governor Roy Barnes outlined an open space vision linking "physical and mental health, the health of our environment, our economic stability, and the choices we make regarding the use of our land."

His vision spawned the Georgia Greenspace Program, a permanent trust fund with the ambitious goal of preserving 20 percent of the land in the state's fastest-growing, most populous counties. Thirty million dollars was appropriated in the first year; 40 counties were eligible to apply for grants. Important strings were attached, designed to promote planning and public participation. Counties are required to prepare a green space inventory and assess potential sources of open space funding. To qualify for grants, the county's comprehensive plan must be consistent with its community green space program.

The Georgia program is forcing people into long-range thinking about open space. When this happens, land acquisition moves beyond being reactive–rallying to save a particular farm, for instance–to proactively planning for green space needs. Officials and residents alike must take into consideration the ecosystem, such as protecting water supplies and wildlife habitat, and the quality of life of the people who will be living there when the county is "built out" 10 or 20 years into the future.

Open Space in the Big Picture

"This is a holistic approach," says John Klevins, TPL's Georgia state director of projects, who is working with Hall and Cherokee Counties, north of Atlanta, on the preparation of their community green space programs. TPL has responded by adding vision planning support to its more traditional finance and acquisition functions.

Klevins says vision planning begins with public and stakeholder meetings. Computer mapping programs plot community preferences, showing both protected and potential green space. TPL also worked with DeKalb County, encompassing southeastern Atlanta, to support the recently passed $125 million bond referendum designed to protect some 35,000 acres of open space.

If open space planning and financing are becoming more sophisticated, so is comprehension of how urban, suburban, and rural qualities of life interrelate. "We can't protect the land at the edge without revitalizing cities," says Phyllis Myers. "People have to live somewhere."

The link between rural protection and urban revitalization was recognized officially last year when Ohio put it on the ballot. With its cities clamoring for brownfields funding and suburbs pressing for the means to preserve open space, Governor Bob Taft cut through the compartmentalization that tends to treat these as separate issues. The Ohio Conservation and Revitalization Fund, approved by a 57 to 43 percent margin, authorizes up to $400 million in state bonds to be distributed through the Clean Ohio Fund. Of this, half will be spent on cleaning up and redeveloping brownfields sites and half on preserving open space.

TPL's Ernest Cook says that Ohio's linkage marks the first time to his knowledge that greenfield preservation and brownfield renewal have been combined in a public funding measure. "Putting the two together makes a great deal of sense," he says, "and I hope we see a lot more of this in the future."

Land & People, Spring, 2001

Richard M. Stapleton is a sailor, gardener, and freelance journalist living in New Jersey.