In the not-too-distant past, land wasn’t very valuable unless it was developed. Now, open space is gaining popularity as a tax-funded public investment to maintain or improve quality of life and attract conscientious CEOs and entrepreneurs who care about their employees.
Indeed, local governments have always been easily convinced to raise taxes to build roads, sewer projects and spec buildings in hopes that they could do a better job than their neighbors of promoting growth. Times have changed, and now the counties and towns that do the best job of learning how to invest in open spaces will be the successful, prosperous places to live in the coming decades. Those who understand and grasp this model will have a leg up on their neighbors.
In North Carolina, that means putting pressure on state legislators to ensure that the Land For Tomorrow initiative makes it to a statewide referendum this fall. In our individual communities, we can take steps to help already existing land trusts succeed or — as many are now trying to do in Haywood County — create new organizations that work with local government and landowners to preserve farmland and forestland for future generations.
The conservation movement in this county is maturing. When we first started creating national parks, the aim was to save large tracts of wild America. Today, however, as populations surge and urban areas swell with buildings and roads, we have come to a new understanding about the value of working farmland, forestland at the edge of large neighborhoods, small watersheds that feed clean streams, and mountaintops surrounded by roads and development. These smaller holdings have become vital pieces in the patchwork of land uses, and they are worth preserving.
North Carolina’s Land For Tomorrow initiative would set aside $1 billion for land conservation over the next five years. The bill had the support of many in the legislature last year, but reportedly Gov.. Mike Easley worried funding it could jeopardize some of his other priorities, so it was shelved for further study.
Hearings around the state have revealed wide-ranging support for the measure. In a public hearing held recently in Asheville, an overwhelming majority supported the initiative, though there was disagreement about how best to come up with the money. Land-transfer taxes, impact fees, statewide room taxes and a host of other funding mechanisms have been discussed. It’s likely a combination of revenue sources will be needed so that no one sector of the economy is hit too hard. In Florida a land-transfer tax has successfully helped pay for conserving land without adversely affecting growth.
According to the National Land Trust Alliance, conservation measures have been on the ballot 883 times in the country since 2001, and 74 percent of those passed. A recent poll conducted in Haywood County’s Bethel community found that 65 percent of the residents supported some kind of taxpayer-funded conservation program.
This is a plan whose time has come. The state needs to help counties buy conservation rights from farmers and other large landowners who need money to retire but would rather save than develop their land. That’s what the Land For Tomorrow initiative would accomplish. The state’s citizens need to make sure their lawmakers understand how much they support this effort.