During the boom times, there was great concern that development would overrun valuable natural areas. Just as the housing market became exaggerated by speculation, so did our plans to preserve open space.
Our preservation goals disproportionately targeted state trust land for preservation. Supporters assumed trust land laws would be changed to allow preservation of trust land at little cost.
Fast forward to The Great Recession. Reform of trust land laws did not happen. The state cannot balance its budget. Cities are making drastic cuts to balance their budgets. School classroom sizes are ballooning.
However, in this distressed economic environment, we continue to spend millions in state and local tax money to acquire more state trust land for open space than is needed to achieve the protection of environmentally sensitive and aesthetically significant areas.
Don’t get me wrong. Open space preservation is a good thing, when it is rationally based on preserving areas of high environmental and aesthetic value. However, we are going well beyond that, spending state and local tax money to buy land which has nominal environmental or aesthetic value. Much of the trust land proposed for acquisition with tax dollars should be sold to developers. They will be required to set aside areas of high environmental and aesthetic value, at no cost to the city or state taxpayer.
To accomplish this, specific development and open-space plans should be agreed upon, and entitlements put in place, prior to the trust lands being sold at auction. This approach will reduce costs to the taxpayer, while saving those natural areas that truly should be preserved.
Just as we are all dealing with the “new normal” in our economy, we need to bring our open-space programs into the real world.
– Ross Smith is senior vice president of Grubb & Ellis’ BRE Land Group.