Some states tackling sprawl with new taxes Preserving farmland and other open space becomes a hot issue


TRENTON, N.J. - New Jersey and a half dozen other states are considering ambitious plans to preserve farmland and other open space to help curb suburban sprawl and address mounting concern from suburban and rural residents about new development in their fast-growing towns.

Republican Gov. Christine Todd Whitman is putting her tax-cutting record at risk with a proposal to raise the gasoline tax to help preserve half of New Jersey's 2 million remaining acres of undeveloped land over the next 10 years.

Georgia lawmakers recently approved a bill that would put a real estate transfer tax increase on the ballot this November to establish a $36 million conservation fund. In Connecticut, state lawmakers approved last month the first piece of Republican Gov. John Rowland's $160 million bond program that would preserve more than 20,000 acres over five years. Minnesota state lawmakers voted in favor of a bond measure that would allocate $140 million over two years for parks, hiking trails, recreation and open space.

The commitment to new state spending comes on top of efforts by more than 100 local and county governments across the country in the last two years to win voter approval for tax increases or bond referendums to help buy undeveloped land and curb suburban sprawl.

Last month, voters in Monroe County, Pa., approved a $25 million bond referendum to purchase undeveloped land over the next 10 years. And in Austin, Texas, voters agreed to increase water rates to raise $65 million to protect 15,000 acres of environmentally sensitive land outside the city.

'Listening to the people'

"There is no question that the governors and the state legislators are listening to the people," said Phyllis Myers, president of State Resource Strategies in Washington, D.C., which tracks state and local open-space financing programs around the country. "When they see that people are willing to tax themselves for this, they recognize that this is an issue that they need to address with an overall state program."

In addition to buying undeveloped land, New Jersey, Maryland, Florida and a handful of other states are trying to improve how they manage growth by seeking to direct new development away from rural areas to established towns that have roads and water and sewer lines.

What is driving the anti-suburban sprawl movement in many communities is concern about the impact of development on congested roads and crowded schools. Development, once seen as a way to expand the property tax base, is now viewed as more costly, as local officials are forced to raise property tax rates to pay for fire stations. elementary schools and police officers.

"I think the public has reached the point where they are fed up," said Bill Wolfe, acting director of the Sierra Club's New Jersey chapter. "They don't like being stuck in traffic. They don't like a two-hour commute to work. They don't like overcrowded schools and rising property taxes. All of those things can be traced back to poor land-use decisions."

But Neil Gaffney, a spokesman for the National Home Builders Association, pointed out that home building in outlying suburbs is driven by consumer demand for larger homes on larger lots. He said that a recent survey, conducted by the association, showed that 82 percent of consumers said they would choose to live in a single-family home in an outlying area over a townhouse near an urban center and their job. "Consumers are driving much of what is happening out there," he said.

From 1970 to 1990, more than 19 million acres of rural land across the country have been developed, according to the Sierra Club, which estimates 400,000 acres a year are vanishing under bulldozers for subdivisions, stores and roadways. In New Jersey, state officials estimate 10,000 acres disappear annually.

In the absence of significant federal spending for the protection of farmland and open space, private organizations, such as the Nature Conservancy and the American Farmland Trust, have been working to purchase open space and development rights, often alongside local governments. Some of the land is being set aside for parkland, but much of the farmland remains in the hands of farmers.

Only recently major environmental organizations like the Sierra Club have made sprawl a top national priority. The Sierra Club began a national campaign last year after a survey of chapters around the country found sprawl was their members' top concern.

'A political issue'

"We have always worked on development issues, but there is a rising crescendo of concern about the impact of sprawl development on communities and the environment," said Larry Bohlen, co-chairman of the Sierra Club's "Challenge to Sprawl" campaign. "It is becoming increasingly a political issue."

It is an issue that crosses party lines. Both Democrats and Republicans have supported measures to protect open space in their states.

When Whitman began her second term in January, she seized on concerns of many suburban and rural residents about the rapidly disappearing landscape and their quality of life and used them as the major theme of her inaugural address.

Whitman administration aides said internal polls show strong support for the proposal, which has also helped bolster Whitman's standing among state environmental groups.

Although Whitman has long supported open-space preservation

programs, she said that she decided to make it a major theme for her second term because she was struck by how much of the state's landscape had changed during her travels around New Jersey in the last four years.

"We preserved 115,000 acres in the first four years, which was more than any other four year-period," Whitman said in an interview on June 3. "But that's such a small amount, given the kinds of pressures that we see. And while I am supportive of growth, and we want to have places for people to live, we've also got to understand that once land is gone, it's gone forever. And that every piece of land we develop puts added pressure on our infrastructure, on our roads, on our bridges, on our schools, on our water systems."

New Jersey, like New York and Florida, has had a long history of supporting open-space preservation. Since 1961, New Jersey voters have approved nine bond referendums that have raised $1.39 billion to help protect more than 400,000 acres of farmland and other land from development. In addition, 53 towns and 13 counties in the state have approved tax increases of 1 to 5 cents on each $100 of assessed property value to protect undeveloped land.

Gasoline tax proposal

But Whitman said that putting another bond referendum before the voters would not provide a stable source of financing that the state needs to meet the ambitious goal of preserving 1 million acres. She also said that money should be used to buy land, not pay interest.

Instead, Whitman has proposed putting a gasoline tax increase before the voters in November that would raise the state tax on gasoline to 21.5 cents a gallon from 14.5 cents a gallon. Of the 7-cent increase, 5 cents would be earmarked to finance improvements for roadways and mass transit projects, and 2 cents, or a projectged $90 million, would be dedicated for open-space preservation. She has also called for a $3 increase in car rental fees to raise an additional $36 million.

State lawmakers, while insisting that they support efforts to preserve New Jersey's land, are balking at using the gasoline tax for open-space preservation. It remains uncertain whether the Republican-controlled Legislature will approve her plan. But lawmakers said they were committed to finding some way to finance it.

New Jersey and a handful of other states and local governments are also beginning to recognize that acquiring farmland and other open space will not be enough, without some effort to manage growth better.

"One of the important issues here is the limitation of conservation by purchase or donation," said Henry Richmond, the founder of the organization 1000 Friends of Oregon that helped create Portland's urban growth boundary, considered the most aggressive growth management approach in the nation. "Those scarce dollars should not be used to conserve land that could be conserved through the use of zoning. That is a fair thing to do."

Pub Date: 6/18/98

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