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

June 18, 1998|By new york times news service

TENTON, N.J. — 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.

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