The Trust for Public Land and the National Association of Counties recognized five initiatives that worked to preserve open space like farmland, forests and ridges that are important to local communities concerned about sprawl, water quality and wildlife habitat.
Counties are the level of government that, more and more, are leading the charge to protect open space, according to leaders of the two organizations. With state and federal budgets strapped, and local governments typically unable to marshal the money needed to buy land or conservation easements, that is likely to continue to be the case.
Since 1996, 151 counties have prioritized land conservation with new or reconsidered conservation programs. In that time these counties have passed 260 ballot measures, generating $14.3 billion for open space, parks, watersheds, recreational lands and wildlife preserves. Over 77 percent of all county conservation ballot measures in the last decade have won voter approval.
What is your county doing to preserve open spaces important to your community? And is it effective? If the answers to those questions are not enough and no, then read on and take these effective strategies to your lawmakers. Local land use issues are often the catalyst for getting new people involved in environmental issues. When a community confronts the prospect of losing a nearby forest or farm to development, it often produces a new generation of conservationists interested not only in the view, but in larger environmental issues. And in an era when concerns about global warming are paramount, preserving wild land and stopping the tide of suburban sprawl are important parts of long-term sustainability initiatives.
Here's a look at the winning strategies (text provided by Trust for Public Land):
Chester County, Pennsylvania: Landscapes 21st Century Preservation Program
When one quarter of state of Pennsylvania's total population increase settled in Chester County from 2000 to 2004, investments in conservation and planning supported the new residents. With nearly twenty years of programmatic conservation of land in hand - particularly the conservation of natural and agricultural lands - Chester County has been directly responsible for conservation of more than twenty percent of the County, providing incentives for local municipalities to develop and implement land use plans that support growth management goals and support partnership with private conservancies and land trusts.
Also rare, conservation in Chester County does not happen alone. Rather, efforts stem from a vision shared among four separate departments - Planning; Parks; Community Development; and Open Space Preservation - ensuring integration, collaboration, and shared responsibility for growth in Chester County.
The first funding by voters in 1989 of $50 million passed at 82 percent, and was matched over time with $135 million from county commissioner budgets. From 2003 to 2007 the County leveraged $18.5 million in grants from the state's Department of Natural Resources. In 2007, voters supported a four-year, $60 million commitment to expand the program.
Harris County, Texas: Harris County Flood Control District
Situated near Galveston Bay and the Texas Gulf Coast, Harris County is home to nearly 3,000 miles of bayous, streams and creeks. Water is a resource for habitat and recreation as well as a threat to the flat, flood-prone area that is highly urbanized with Houston at its center.
Severe floods prompted the creation of the Harris County Flood Control District in 1937. For more than seventy years, the District has amassed thousands of acres of natural lands to widen bayous and excavate stormwater storage basins. When dry, these lands serve as parks, trails, community gardens, wetlands and wildlife refuges. Unique programs allow public agencies to use acres of flood control land for parks and citizens to create community gardens where homes in the floodplain once stood.
The District operates in partnership with communities, non-profit groups, local governments and federal entities including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Federal Emergency Management Agency. A dedicated ad valorem property tax and substantial federal funding are the primary sources of revenue, allowing the District to spend an average $150 million annually on capital projects.
To date Harris County has benefited from the acquisition of more than 20,000 acres of land, including 3,200 acres of parks, 3,200 acres of flooding easements and 100 linear miles of trails.
Martin County, Florida: Parks and Conservation Lands
Martin County, Florida, like many coastal Florida counties, is experiencing growth pressure. But unique to Martin County is the intersection of that growth with the fragile and threatened Indian River Lagoon, impacts on watersheds that feed the Everglades, and other threatened wetland and upland systems.
For two decades Martin County has committed resources to programs such as "Land For You," Healthy Rivers, and the Parks and Conservation Lands program to acquire nearly 48,000 acres of land to meet environmental conservation goals and recreation and public access goals.
The 1989 bond referendum, "Lands for You," created the first funding mechanism of $20 million, which leveraged into $50 million in land purchases. Moreover in 1989, environmental and business leaders contributed to a seven-member oversight panel - a land acquisition selection committee - to support programmatic conservation priorities.
In 1996, Martin County voters approved Healthy Rivers, a three-year, one-cent sales tax which generated $50 million - leveraged into more than $300 million - for preservation of more than 42,000 acres of land in the Everglades watershed and Indian River Lagoon landscapes.
In 2006, voters returned to support a half-cent sales tax for clean water, wildlife, beaches, and parks. Over the next five years the tax will generate $60 million. A unique condition will require at least ten percent of project costs from this fund to support restoration of natural areas that also provide enhanced public access. Already Martin County has utilized this new voter commitment to acquire ten contiguous acres from the Atlantic Ocean shoreline to the Indian River Lagoon.
Park County, Colorado: South Park Heritage Area, Park County Land & Water Trust Fund
With only 17,500 people it may be surprising that Park County, Colorado experienced the largest increase in population growth (100%) nationwide during the 1990s. Nestled above metropolitan Denver, Park County has seen much of its ranching disappear as eighty percent of its agricultural water has been diverted downstream for municipal uses.
As the Front Range population boom gained momentum, a coalition formed - ranchers and miners, business leaders and local government officials - to initiate conservation of natural, cultural, and land-based economic resources and cultivate a new resource-based economy. The coalition formed the South Park Heritage Area in 1994 to study resources and support citizen initiatives that depend on those resources, such as the Park County Land & Water Trust Fund (passed in 1997). That Fund has since leveraged more than $4 million in sales tax into $20 million budget, including private, state, and federal donations and grants.
Among the accomplishments of the Park County Land & Water Trust Fund are preservation of 23,000 acres - using conservation easements - of land associated with water rights, wetlands, and riparian habitat; restoration of thirteen miles of degraded South Platte River tributary streams, benefiting habitat, water quality, and storm-water control, and enhanced recreational opportunities; and programmatic developments for citizens including new interpretive exhibits and unique public recreational activities, such as the South Park Flyfishers Program.
In November 2006, voters reauthorized the Fund through 2018 by an 81 percent margin.
Suffolk County, Long Island, New York: Open Space Acquisition Policy Plan
In the 1980s, Suffolk County, situated fifty miles east of New York City, had begun to feel the squeeze of development pressure and strain from interest in its repository of high quality drinking water. The first dedicated funding source for an Open Space Program was initiated in 1986 to preserve a precious water supply, in addition to wetlands and woodlands.
Thoughtful about their priorities and innovative in their execution, Suffolk County was the first municipality nationwide to create a Purchase of Development Rights program - a tool for working with landowners to support limited future land use in exchange for payment from the County.
In 2004, through a voted-approved issuance of $75 million in serial bonds, the County initiated the Save Open Space program to quickly acquire open space, farmland development rights, hamlet greens, and parks as well as enhance public spaces in downtown areas. To date the program has spent $30 million to conserve 443 acres.
In 2007 Suffolk County voters passed a measure to significantly extend the life of the program - from 2013 to 2030 - with funding expected to reach $322 million over the next four years from a quarter-percent sales tax. Since its inception the County has preserved more than 14,000 acres of land for more than $243 million.
With foresight and streamlined purchasing and land management, Suffolk County has created a green infrastructure ideally suited to accommodate future development demands - while preserving community character, supporting underlying environmental sensitivities, and protecting drinking water supplies.
We can react to pressures like development, or be thoughtful in our responses, said Will Rogers, TPL President. Local conservation programs can help our communities shape thoughtful growth. This years winners are being recognized for their commitment to creating healthy, livable places.
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