How to Preserve Open Space

Given the cost and complexities involved in purchasing and setting aside green, open space, no one type of organization can go it alone. Local governments, land trusts, non-profits, and private sector developers must forge public-private partnerships (PPPs) to make the big deals happen that can preserve the natural character of places. In a session at the American Planning Association (APA) conference in Chicago, Richard Pruetz, Planning & Implementation Strategies; Ole Amundsen, The Conservation Fund; and Dr. Tom Daniels, University of Pennsylvania, explained how some communities have made PPPs work.

Pruetz said any good smart growth strategy has to include preservation. “Preservation promotes environmental quality, disaster mitigation, local food production, and compact communities.” One prime example of how to promote smart growth while setting aside land for the benefit of the entire community is the plan created by Marin County in California, which was developed in 2007 to guide “preservation and restore the natural environment.” The plan’s ambitious goals were entirely due to “the participation of non-profits.”

Back in the early ’70s, local non-profits like Save the Seashore and the Sierra Club started to agitate, asking policymakers, “will the last open space last?” They wanted to keep development out of Pt. Reyes seashore, the Golden Gate area, and other green belts and farmlands. With 500,000 signatures in their petitions the seashore groups won broad political support that turned into action. The government acquired 70,000 acres of the Pt. Reyes seashore in 1972, making it a “national seashore.” In the same vein, a collection of 65 or more non-profits, including the Nature Conservancy, Trust for Public Land, Sierra Club, formed a coalition to push for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. They also achieved their goals, with that area now one of the most beautiful and well-visited places on the west coast. Other campaigns worked to keep farmland and other green spaces undeveloped by partnering with private farmers’ groups and using private financing. The end result today: roughly 160,000 acres, or nearly one-half of Marin county, is “permanently preserved.”

In another example, Boulder, Colorado decided to keep to Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.’s original 1910 open space plan, which called for a green belt all the way around the city. FLO, Jr. had said “this is a wonderful place, don’t spoil it.” So in the ’60s, as development could have started to sprawl out, community debate led to a process of creating a open space plan. Local conservation groups persuaded the city government to “create urban growth boundaries.” To make this a reality, Boulder created an “open space bond,” which the voters approved. The bond required all community members, including the private sector, to pay for the privilege of not developing outside the growth zones. This way the community could still finance all the services it needed to provide without sprawling out. Now, Boulder uses those funds to acquire land and expand its great open space.

King County, Washington, the county around Seattle, provides another model, said Pruetz. There, King country government and the Trust for Public Land created a vision for protecting 500,000 acres from development. The non-profit, Forterra, which led a coalition of more than 100 businesses, non-profits, and government organizations, put on a sort of planning conference that was even more ambitious, calling for one million acres to be preserved. But shooting for the stars was a good plan: the end result was a plan to acquire 265,000 acres at a cost of $7 billion. Some $4 billion is to be financed through the transfer of development rights (TDR), which is a powerful tool for transferring development from protected areas to acceptable ones.

Pruetz called King County’s approach to TDRs the most successful in the country, in part because it also spurred the development of a “regional TDR alliance,” which enabled neighboring communities to join in a broader regional development vision. While most TDRs can only be used in the jurisdiction that creates them, in this regional group, TDRs can be used across jurisdictions in a TDR exchange. To date, King County has preserved nearly 142,000 acres of nature with its TDR program. The private sector also benefits in this innovative PPP scheme.

Amundsen then discussed how communities can work with land trusts like his, The Conservation Fund. He said land trusts, in contrast to other non-profits and government agencies, are highly “action oriented.” But still, land trusts need to partner with the government and private sector groups because “partnerships increase the odds of full plans and implementation.” The Conservation Fund has been active in communities across the U.S., including Nashville and Davidson county, where it helped create an open space plan that preserved a 27,000-acre natural area. Within this preserve, efforts are underway to clean the water in streams and restore the habitat for the native crayfish populations. A broader plan aims to set aside 1,500 acres for local food production and make Nashville a “leader in urban agriculture.” The private sector has largely bought into these goals as the whole community seems to understand that “creative people are a city’s brightest asset and they want a place where they can walk and breath clean air.”

Indianapolis is also seeking to preserve hundreds of thousands of acres for green infrastructure plans. These projects involve replanting river corridors with native plants and cleaning up streams so they can better function as stormwater management systems and natural habitat. All these projects have benefited from the Conservation Fund’s revolving loan trust fund. “Money is cheap. Now’s a good time to borrow money to buy land.”

Professor Daniels added that land trusts have only proliferated because the government, with $16 trillion in debt, can’t afford to buy up lots of land and set it aside as open space. They also grew up because “local planning was so bad,” so in many places they have become “proxy planners.” In the ’80s, there were about 400 land trusts; now there’s are about 1,200. Together, they’ve ensured that some 50 million acres has been preserved.

Daniels said PPPs are a smart way to go with land preservation because “there’s more money” and these deals “better respond to individual community’s needs.” In Lancaster county, Pennsylvania, where Daniels was planner and still lives, permanent growth boundaries were established to ensure the pastoral agricultural character of the area is preserved. Lancaster is home to the Amish, and all together the county’s farmers produce $1 billion in crops and livestock each year. In the late ’80s, Lancaster set up a farmland trust with a mix of local private and government money that preserved 25,000 acres of farmland and protected hundreds of farms from sprawling-out residential homes. Now, Lancaster is number-one in terms of locally operated farmland preservation, which means there will always be a long-term supply of farmland.

Also, more land is preserved each year than developed upon. While it took time, “the development community has made peace with this.” In the Warwick Township, developers buy TDRs to build on to increasingly dense communities. Interestingly, Daniels said “you have to pay for density, but only a nominal fee.”

Image credit: (1) Marin County / Frog City Cheese, (2)
Boulder Open Space / City of Boulder, Colorado\

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