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Greenbelts Advisory Board Meeting, August 9

The economic benefits of greenspace
Consultant makes an impressive case
Warwick Jones, Editor

We suspect that every member of the Greeenbelt Advisory Board was impressed. Probably no member needed assurance of the benefits that flow from greenspace. But the presentation by the newly hired consultant, Greenways Inc, highlighting the economic benefits derived by a community from the acquisition and creation of greenspace, must have expelled any doubts.

The true cost of land development
Mr. Charles Flink, a principal of Greenways Inc, entitled his presentation the "Economic Benefits of Greenspace". And what was particularly interesting about the presentation was the attempt to quantify in money terms some these benefits. Mr. Flink opened his presentation with a challenge as to the true cost of land development. Quoting from the Urban Land Trust, he said that many community leaders conclude that taxes generated from growth will pay for the increased costs of urban sprawl but for many American communities, this is simply not true. He quoted from a study prepared for Howard County, Maryland that indicated that for every $1 of tax revenue collected from urban development, $1.25 was spent to serve residential land and only $0.19 spent to serve forest and farm space. Development may add to the tax base. But it is increasing the servicing costs of the community( at least this community) by an even greater amount.

Mr. Flink also drew on other studies such as that by the Bank of America. It observed "unchecked sprawl has shifted from an engine of California's economic growth to a force that threatens growth and to down grade the quality of life". He noted that we are building a collection of neighborhoods, not sustainable communities. And clearly, the adverse impact of sprawl has been noticed. More than 50% of American in a 1998 survey would rather live in a village type of community (as opposed to a typical suburban development). At the same time, communities are becoming more conscious of the environment and desirous of creating and protecting greenspace. And as Mr. Flink points out, there are economic benefits. And here are some examples

Some of the economic benefits of greenspace
Protecting water supply. New York City is spending $1.5 billion to protect 80,000 acres of upstate watershed. In doing this it will avoid the need to spend $6 to $8 billion for a new water filtration plant to remove harmful chemicals
Flood Plan management. Each year about 100 Americans die and more than $2 billion in damage is sustained from flooding of communities. Flooding of homes and businesses is preventable through proper planning and development. Mr. Flink did not provide a cost- benefit analysis of any project but he noted the success at Louisville, Kentucky that had developed greenways along flood plains to help absorb floodwaters.
Improving health. Mr. Flink noted the generational changes that had occurred over the last 50 years or so. Children today have far less access to open space. Indoor activities now rank far more importantly and to the detriment of health. He noted, as have others, the increasing obesity of children, higher incidence of diabetes, psychiatric, psychological and other problems. All of these problems could be reduced if children had better access to greenspace, and particularly walking and bike trails. The Federal Government has recognized the importance of these trails to better health. The Surgeon General and the President's Council of Physical Fitness has asked communities to install bike trails
Value added - for homeowners. Greenspace is not an empty word when it comes to adding value, Access to greenspace can make a big difference to the value of a property. Quoting from the National Homebuilders Association, "residential properties will realize a 10 to 20% gain in value the closer they are located to greenspace". Mr. Flink gave examples of such differences in pricing of lots in recent developments that included two in West Virginia and one in Birmingham, Alabama. The point is that if developers are prepared to give up portion of their developable land for greenspace, they may well recoup more than they are giving up in terms of the number of lots by an increase in the value of each lot.
Value added - for the community. Higher valued properties means higher value taxable property, and more revenue to city coffers. But greenspace can also bring more visitors to a city. A study of the Outer Banks area of North Carolina noted that the bike trails created in the northern area was responsible for bringing in an annual $80 million and creating 1400 jobs. Railway projects in Florida and North Dakota generated similar benefits with the consultant noting that often $1 in outlay will generate $3 in revenue.
Attracted business. Industry is also noting the importance of greenspace in more ways that one. Attracting workers can be a problem in opening a new plant. Reichold Chemicals was drawn to a community because it observed how important bike and walk trails were to many potential employees. Of relevance is another comment from the Research Triangle Foundation of North Carolina " Investing in our greenway system has made us more competitive in the world market place and in fact is one reason that companies choose to locate in the (Research Triangle) Park.

The City of Chattanooga is another good example of the success of a greenspace program . About 20 years ago, the city was in poor shape with many areas blighted. Through an extensive revitalization program that included greenspace, the city was revitalized. The Tennessee River Park, an important part of the redevelopment, has added more than 20 miles of trails along the riverfront and the Chairman of the City council is quoted as saying that "Our greenway system has been key to revitalizing our city and attracting new businesses.

Some questions
Members of the GAB enthusiastically endorsed Mr. Flink's presentation but as one of the board members noted, the problem was not whether the community wanted or needed greenspace, but how was the greenbelt program going to be implemented? There were a number of municipalities that made up the county each with its own codes and zonings. Some of these entities were acquisitive and annexing properties. Making a common cause with these entities would be a challenge, maybe an impossible challenge. But another member suggested it would not be such a problem. Yes, each city or municipality had it own views but the County was the arbiter for the distribution of sale tax funds and in this sense it wielded a big stick. Implied was the fact that the County could withhold funds if it chose to.

Another member noted that the creation of greenspace was well and good and, yes, its creation leads to higher real state values. But what about the issue of "affordable housing"? Being "affordable" required the ability to acquire land at a reasonable value.

Public meetings scheduled for September
The next meeting set for Tuesday August 25, will be preparatory to seeking the public's views. The consultant plans on submitting drafts of questions and other material that will be set before the public at a series of hearings. The final location and timing has yet to be defined with certainty but tentatively the hearings are set for the week beginning September 18.

Other business discussed at the Tuesday meeting was a working definition of greenbelts. This was not the definition that would necessarily define where money would be directed but only to define the word so there would be commonality in discussion.

Concern about talk to include road buffers in greenbelt definition
The GAB asked the Chairman to write a letter to the County Council indicating GAB's concern about "press" comments that greenbelt funds would be available for buffers along future roadways. As "greenbelts" have yet to be defined for sales-tax spending purposes, it is premature to assume that buffers will be included. But it is the author's opinion that without some redeeming quality such as inclusion of a path or bikeway, the GAB will not kindly consider dispensing funds for road buffers.


Warwick Jones is a member of GAB

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