By Jefferson G. Edgens
Governor Barnes should be commended for his proposal to protect 20 percent of open space. Not only is this a good idea, but it stresses two important points: local governments decide what areas to protect, and the program is voluntary. The only point of disagreement is using general appropriations to buy the land.
The Governor’s plan requests $30 million for his 20 percent goal, but this is less than 10% of what a recent survey of Georgia county and city officials estimate is needed to protect 18,300 acres. When government uses funds to buy land to preserve open space, it means the dollars can’t be used for something else. Moreover, it creates a sense of entitlement. Local units of government will pester the legislature each year for additional funds, thereby expanding the program and committing more financial resources. Over time, Georgia taxpayers will shoulder a larger tax burden.
Open-space protection is a noble goal, but land-use experts say land preservation works best when large, contiguous tracts can be saved at once. As building pressures increase, it’s important to buy as much surrounding land as possible, especially farmland. Buying small parcels here and there only creates isolated wildlife habitat, and few large pieces for recreation and watershed protection. Grand objectives are difficult with paltry funding, and land purchases are expensive. DeKalb County representatives think the 2,000 acres it wants to protect will cost $40 million. Two ideas gaining in popularity that can protect land without reliance on additional tax dollars are private land trusts and infrastructure privatization.
Through a flexible, voluntary, private land trust, landowners can control what lands are protected, in contrast to politicians and bureaucrats deciding which lands to protect or not. Government land-protection programs can also have strings attached.
The benefits of land trusts blend long-term protection of the land with economic and tax advantages already provided in the U.S. Tax Code. Through a conservation easement donated to a land trust, landowners can decide how much land to protect and get a tax writeoff for the donation. The landowner still maintains ownership of the property, but the easement places a restriction on any future development. This is a permanent solution, so a landowner must be sure this is something they want to do.
Land trusts are gaining in popularity. So popular, they have grown by 63 percent in the last ten years, from a low of 743 to 1,213 land trusts nationwide. Are they having an impact? Yes. In 1998, land trusts protected 4.7 million acres, a 135 percent increase from 1988. Land trust memberships have increased to 1 million.
Another option is to allow local governments to privatize infrastructure like water, sewer or gas services and apply the lump-sum payment from the sale to open-space acquisition. Several objectives are accomplished at once: future connections to infrastructure will require full-cost pricing. Developers would have to pay private wastewater treatment systems to add new lines. The farther out a development builds from a private wastewater plant, the more expensive it becomes. Developers will either seek to build closer or construct fewer larger houses in suburbanizing areas. In effect, these actions would reduce sprawl conditions and encourage greater density through market options, not government coercion.
In addition, open space is best protected in large contiguous pieces to protect it from development. Acquiring the funds to buy this much land in a short amount of time poses a problem. For this reason, most groups advocate a stable source of funding for land preservation, i.e., increases in property taxes or other creative public financing schemes. When a local government sells off infrastructure, it raises a large sum of funds that can be applied to open-space protection immediately. An extra benefit to the taxpayer is that a large area is protected from development, thus limiting new pressure on already overcrowded roads, water and city services. For example, the City of Atlanta needs $45 million to buy 1,500 acres for parks. With the city’s wastewater problems, privatization can bring about better management and give the city the needed funds to buy the park land.
Barnes’ proposal is a good idea and local governments can take it further through partnerships with land trusts and privatizing certain government services. With land trusts and privatization, the goal of protecting 20 percent of open space can be achieved. In addition, local governments will remain lean, service delivery will be more efficient and low taxation will be maintained.
Jefferson G. Edgens, Ph.D., a native of Rome, Georgia, is a Natural Resource Policy Analyst at the University of Kentucky. He is also an adjunct scholar with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. The Georgia Public Policy Foundation is a nonpartisan, member-supported research and education organization based in Atlanta, Georgia, that promotes free markets, limited government and individual responsibility. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.
© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (February 22, 2000). Permission is hereby given to reprint this article, with appropriate credit given.