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Friday, July 5, 2013

Open Space Preservation: An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a More Than a Pound of Strip Malls

The Back Story
As I've mentioned in other posts, I chair my township's Environmental Advisory Council (EAC).   The seven EAC volunteers are appointed by our township's Board of Commissioners to advise that board on environmental matters affecting the township. The Commissioners usually reject our recommendations for a variety of reasons.  Conventional wisdom would say that our EAC's recommendations are typically at odds with the pro-development sentiments of most of this Board of Commissioners.  I've pointed out in a couple previous posts that, on our board of five commissioners, two are Realtors and a third is CEO of the local Association of Realtors.  And this Board of Commissioners presides over what has been the fastest growing municipality in Pennsylvania for the past 10-15 years.

With the excessive growth in population and associated loss of farmland over the past 20+ years, lots of residents are up in arms about any new developments that are approved in our township.  The two biggest concerns are increased traffic and loss of open space.  This open space provided a semi-rural feel to our 22 square-mile township that was present when many of the 31,000 current residents either moved here or grew up here.  But there is noticeably less undeveloped open space remaining.

The Status Quo
Allen Distribution warehouse (photo credit: allendistribution.com)
Many of the residential, warehouse, and commercial strip mall developments that we now have or have been approved and are waiting to be built were once some of the most fertile farmland in Pennsylvania.  As owners of family farms neared retirement age, with no children interested in continuing in the family business, farmers understandably sold their land to developers eager to build bedroom communities in close proximity to I-78 and less than half an hour from the New Jersey border.  So should we try to gerrymander the current zoning map to stop the remaining farmers, who are our neighbors, from cashing in on their nest egg?  That would be pretty un-neighborly, probably illegal, and not likely to happen under the current Board of Commissioners.

Part of a contentious, 700-acre project that recently saw over 600 acres rezoned from Agricultural Preservation to combinations of Light Industrial, Commercial, and Residential. This owner was not a mom & pop farmer; he is a corporate farmer with a long history of paving fertile farm fields to build warehouses. photo credit:  Morning Call (mcall.com).

How to Be Proactive
Rather than risking an adversarial relationship with our remaining farmers, whether they are mom & pop farmers or industrial operations, it seems like a more reasonable option might be for the township to purchase key tracts of remaining farmland and other open space, at market value, to prevent additional traffic from gridlocking us and prevent paving over our remaining green fields with more asphalt.  Sounds great, but it also sounds costly.

Our township currently has no property tax.  Until sometime in the 1980s, we had a property tax.  But it was eliminated, because the township was receiving so much fee revenue from developers building new housing developments.  In addition to development fee revenue, the township assesses residents a 1% earned income tax.  With an earned income tax, retirees and others on limited incomes aren’t saddled with paying a tax on what might be their only significant asset. And although the township has a reserve fund of several million dollars, that fund would not last long if we use it to buy up open space properties.

Therefore, our EAC has proposed that the township hold a referendum for residents to decide whether to institute an Open Space Tax to raise funds for the township to purchase some of the remaining open space in the township.  Voters in forward-thinking municipalities in Pennsylvania have been authorizing this sort of thing for the past two decades to preserve open space.  Some municipalities have done it by borrowing paid for by bonds, and others have done it by taxing.  Most Open Space Taxes are an earned income tax (0.25% is the most common rate).  And many Open Space Earned Income Taxes are capped at five-years, after which they would have to be re-authorized by voters.  Our Board of Commissioners’ Budget & Finance Committee has not rejected our proposal yet.  Instead, they requested us to provide a report on all available financing options so that they can make a more informed recommendation to the full Board of Commissioners.

This should not be a difficult decision for our commissioners.  We are asking them to authorize a referendum to let the voters decide.  That way, no politician has to be worried about publicly voting for a new tax.  If our commissioners authorize the referendum, our residents can decide if open space is important enough to pay an additional modest tax for a limited time to fund buying land for preservation before developers buy it. Preserving our open space will preserve our property values (assuming that excessive traffic and suburban sprawl have negative impacts on real estate values).  And our remaining farmers can still cash in on their farmland nest egg to fund their retirements.  Sounds logical, like a win-win.  Stay tuned.
Home. (photo credit: GoogleEarth)

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