Conserving open space makes both ecological and financial sense. It provides critical habitat for wildlife, protects clean water, offers recreational opportunities, protects historically significant places, and preserves the charm and character of our towns. Open space also helps the town's tax base. Undeveloped, protected land costs taxpayers next to nothing. At least 75% of most municipal budgets are usually needed for educating our children, but trees and cows don’t go to school.
As Joni Mitchell lamented in her 1970 song, “Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got till it's gone. They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” This beachside parking lot is located in Sandusky Ohio. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Mark Twain said “Buy land, they’re not making it anymore.” However, if you’re not one of the world’s 164 billionaires, you simply cannot afford to buy up every piece of beautiful farmland, forest or waterfront property in town to protect it forever. Fortunately, there are other options.
Perhaps you own open space. It is your land, and you have the right to do what you want with it, as long as you comply with applicable regulations. If you want to keep some or all of it in open space or agricultural use for generations to come, you really need to get it in writing. Contact a local or regional land trust, state conservation association, or agency like the Natural Resource Conservation Service to learn about options like development restrictions or conservation gifts. These mechanisms can offer attractive tax benefits, while ensuring that your heirs or future buyers respect your wishes and your legacy lives on.
Responsible development can create jobs and benefit the community. Some development is inevitable, but it doesn’t have to be dumb. Don’t wait until the situation escalates to crisis mode. Help your town plan for BOTH conservation and development. Participate in your community’s planning process now to help shape thoughtful growth.
Each town has a Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD) that must be updated at least every decade. This master plan provides the vision for future development. It serves as the basis for all planning and zoning decisions, and guides land use regulations as well as capital budget allocations. Provide your comments and recommendations on the POCD and development proposals to the Planning & Zoning Commission in community forums or hearings. Ask that development be sensitively sited to protect valuable or threatened natural resources. If you are opposed to a development project, get organized and make your concerns known if you want to influence the course of events.
Give your precious vote to political candidates who value open space. Call or write to elected officials to let them know you care about conservation of our natural places. During the annual budget process, ask your town to include a generous line item to buy development rights, first rights of refusal, conservation easements, or outright purchases of valuable open space.
Support bond issues dedicated to preserving open space – it will save tax dollars in the long run. Proactive communities like Pomfret are buying while prices are low. In 2008, they set aside $4 million in open space bonding. In 2009, Pomfretians voted to protect over 700 acres of land. As Dawn Adiletta, Chair of the Woodstock Open Space Land Acquisition and Farmland Preservation Committee noted, citizens wisely recognized that protecting working farms and open space will help stabilize the town’s budget, subsidize residential land use, and maintain rural vistas and agricultural heritage.
Support organizations working to protect open space. There are a number of local, regional and national land trusts and clubs whose sole purpose is open space conservation. Some towns also have committees or commissions involved in this mission. Others are helping to gather data on sensitive habits and species, which right now is woefully incomplete for Windham County. Your support can range from becoming a member, serving on a board or committee, getting involved on a short-term basis in a project, volunteering to help with a fundraiser, or making a donation or endowment.
Last, but not least, support municipal ordinances and tax breaks that help out working farms and property owners that practice sustainable forest management. Buy from local farmers and foresters to enable them to stay in business. The more profitable they are, the more likely they will not have to sell off their land to raise money or pay down debts. Enjoy fresh local produce from a farmer’s market. Ask your grocery store to buy from local farms and to stock local maple syrup and jams. Don’t get your Christmas tree from China or Canada – buy it from a local tree farmer. Get your firewood or mulch from individuals or companies that practice sustainable forestry. Fill your garden or flowerpots with plants from a local grower instead of from a big box store.
Any or all of these actions will help ensure that we don't live to regret paving paradise to put up a parking lot.
Also see Part I - A Temporary Reprieve from Development