This is the year to enable a municipal open space funding option
Legislators on both sides of the aisle say they want to protect municipal open space, support town recreation areas, invest in clean water infrastructure, and combat problematic invasive species … so why aren’t they giving municipalities the chance to generate the resources necessary to succeed?
The Connecticut General Assembly Environment Committee has a tremendous leadership opportunity to advance House Bill 5254 , which authorizes a pilot group of towns to raise funds for open space and farmland protection and maintenance of town lands and waters through a buyer’s conveyance fee program. Yet despite overwhelmingly positive testimony at the Feb. 4 public hearing, the bill has yet to be voted out of committee.
When it comes to legislation, passage of HB 5254 is the proverbial “no-brainer.”
The program is voluntary. The authority to establish the fee only extends to municipalities that request inclusion in the legislation. To date, there are 15 such towns that are asking for this right.
The legislation is enabling. It provides the right, but not the obligation, for the participating towns to adopt the program to benefit community open space programs. The participating towns will still need local approval through their respective legislative process in order to establish the program.
The program is flexible. HB 5254 allows participating towns to tailor the specifics of the program to their community’s needs. For example, a town may choose to lower the fee (it’s a maximum of 1 percent) and raise the portion of the purchase price exempt from the fee (it’s a minimum of $150,000).
The legislation incentivizes public-private partnerships. With 137 land trusts in the state, HB 5254 enhances opportunities to leverage additional private matching funds to re-invest into community-based conservation projects.
The program makes good economic sense for the state and the participating towns. Since the funds are collected and expended locally, there is no adverse fiscal impact on the state budget. Nor would it impact the local mill rate or require increased municipal bonding.
The program works. The concept of a local conveyance fee program is one that has been tried and tested in neighboring states – and the precedent is quite positive. States including Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and West Virginia have allowed some municipalities to enact a buyer’s conveyance fee, with the income dedicated to conserving and caring for local natural areas. These programs have proven successful, resulting in the protection of thousands of acres of open space, forests, meadows and farms.
So what is the problem? Lobbyists for real estate and home builder associations argue that the state should deny granting this authority to local communities based on unfounded fears that it may deter investment in local real estate. Their concerns are misplaced. Indeed, studies of buyer’s conveyance fee programs from other states show just the opposite.
People and businesses are attracted to communities that have cleaner air and water, recreation options, local food sources, and protected natural beauty. The fee is a community investment in maintaining open spaces, water resources, and farmland, which in turn helps to sustain the community’s natural assets, avoid the hidden costs of development, and actually increase local property values.
The time for this option is now. Considering the state budget crisis — impacting both state and local economies — there has never been a better time to allow municipalities with the option to pursue alternative, creative funding mechanisms to help them achieve their land conservation and community planning goals.
HB 5254 is about community choice. Fifteen towns are asking for the right to allow their residents to decide whether to adopt a local conveyance fee program to help protect open space and farmland, parks and water resources, and support other environmental projects that benefit their community. We implore the members of the Connecticut General Assembly to approve HB 5254 and give them the opportunity to do so.
Amy Blaymore Paterson is Executive Director of the Connecticut Land Conservation Council.
CTViewpoints welcomes rebuttal or opposing views to this and all its commentaries. Read our guidelines and submit your commentary here.