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County Council, November 12, 2009

Advisory Board asked to evaluate greenbelt program
Public access is one major issue
Warwick Jones

At a Finance Committee meeting last month, some Council members expressed unease about the County’s greenbelt program. Was too much being spent on conservation easements and not enough on properties that allowed public access? What was the County’s liability in relation to administering easements? In consequence, the Committee instructed staff to make a presentation on the status of the Greenbelt program. And this was given last night.

Ms. Kathy Ruff, Director Greenbelts Program, and Kurt Taylor, Deputy County Administrator, gave a long presentation which probably answered most questions the Council members had. And if it didn’t, Council members asked the questions direct. And if staff could not answer the questions, members of the land trusts that were in attendance did.

In our view, there were no serious shortcomings in the County’s greenbelt program revealed by last night’s meeting. However, differences remained over certain items. The Finance Committee voted to request the Greenbelt Advisory Board (GAB) to evaluate the County’s Greenbelt program and to come back within 6 months with specific recommendations. And one of those recommendations as the Committee noted could be another public hearing or workshop on the program.

A large measure of defined goals achieved
Before commenting on the specific issues raised at last night’s meeting, it should be said that measured against the goals set in the Greenbelt Comprehensive Plan, the Greenbelt program has been successful. Of the total $1.3 billion projected to be raised by the half cent sales tax over 25 years, 17% was to be set aside for greenbelts, equal to $222 million. In present day terms, the dollar figure is much less. How much less depends on inflation rates but our guess is about $140 million. Council, reflecting also the opinion of the GAB, decided a few years ago to issue 2 tranches of bonds to finance grants immediately. Interest and amortization would come from the sales tax. The first tranche of bonds raised $60 million and the second, when issued, a projected $35 million. As the Parks and Recreation has drawn $36 million immediately from another bond issue related to the sales tax, there effectively will no further funds available for greenbelts from the sales tax after the second bond issue.

Of the $95 million ($60 million +$35 million), the rural program was allocated $66.5 million or 70% of available funds and the urban program $28.5 million or 30% of available funds. To date, $43 million or 65% of the rural funds have been awarded with achievement of 43% of its 33,325 acre goal. The average cost per acre to the County has been $3000, and with matching funds of $90.5 million from owners and other entities. With the Urban program, $16 million or 56% of funds have been awarded with achievement of 27% of its acreage goal.

In regard to the figures, it is obvious that at the past rate of spending, the acreage goals of both the rural and urban programs will not be achieved. But the acreage goals were “soft” - more objectives than firm goals. And indeed the expenditure and achievement ratios for the rural program would come closer together if some grants had not been approved such as the Wide-Awake Plantation in Hollywood. This contentious grant cost the Greenbelt Bank $4.7 million and covered only 8 acres. A better measure of success than the ratios might be the $90.5 million in matching funds that had been achieved.

And as for the urban projects, they are chosen by the municipalities and are largely out of the hands of the County which just ensures that each project meets the overall objectives of the greenbelt program.

Public access an issue
It was probably Chairman Pryor who expressed the most concern about the lack of public access to many of the properties that received grants. As he rightly pointed out, most of the properties that were covered with conservation easements do not allow public access. However purchased or fee simple property usually allowed full public access. By inference, he would prefer more purchases.

Staff pointed out that some 50% of all allocations from greenbelt funds were for grants for properties that allowed public access. This figure included the purchases by the PRC. It also noted that the GAB, in defining the Comprehensive Greenbelt Plan, held a number of public workshops. The public, at these meetings and those of the GAB itself, indicated the strongest desire for the preservation of rural land and open space, best done with conservation easements. As well, the cost of buying or fee simple acquisitions was much higher than creating easements – roughly $33,500 an acre opposed to $3000 an acre. If all grants were for fee simple purchase, the amount of acres that could be preserved would be small.

Landowners give up more than they receive
Staff and other Council members also noted that land owners that were being paid for easements were not simply receiving a handout. They were giving up the development rights – for good! They were losing more than they were receiving. A licensed assessor made a reckoning on the diminution in the value of the property, as did the County. The payment, through the grant from greenbelt funds, to the property owner was usually a fraction of the reduction. Yes, there was a Federal and State income tax benefit that could be claimed with the reduction in the property value. But the reduction in property taxes was miniscule as most of the properties, because they were rural, agricultural and forestry, were taxed at low rates already.

Many questions from Council member Rawl
Council member Rawl was concerned that properties were receiving grants for preservation easements even though they were not developable. Council member Schweers said that there were few if any properties in the rural part of the County that could not be developed in some way. But even if it were a real issue, the assessor would pick this up and it would be reflected in the valuation. If there were no value in what the land owner was giving up, there could be no grant.

Council member Rawl may not have been the most hostile of Council members, but he asked the most questions. What is greenspace, what is an urban greenbelt, how many of the public expressed views about preservation goals, on what basis were the goals set, who set the goals, what is the County’s liability in maintaining easements?

Most of these questions were fair though some probably reflected his unfamiliarity with the program and his short tenure on Council. As Mr. Taylor pointed out, there was no definition of greenbelts in the sales tax referendum document. The definition was worked out by the GAB over a series of meetings. And as Council member Rawl inferred, the 503 citizens that attended public workshops was small in relation to the 300,000 population of the County. But are we to disregard the public when they are given an opportunity to speak. After all, we sometimes elect Council members when only a few percent of registered voters go to the polls. The goals of the greenbelt program were set by the GAB, guided by Mr. Chuck Flink a well know consultant who drew on his own experience, and of others, to help define goals. The 70/30 allocation between rural and urban funding was a GAB decision and perhaps the most hotly debated of all issues confronted by the Board. And finally, the County has no liability on maintaining the enforcement of easements. This is the role of the land trusts which have their own sources of funding.

So the baton has been passed to the GAB to reconsider the Greenbelt Plan. Theoretically, it could decide the plan is fine as it is, and should not be changed, and recommend accordingly. But there are some issues that will be discussed. And maybe the Cities and Municipalities will agitate to raise their allocation from 30 to 40%.

Disclosure: The author is a member of the Greenbelt Advisory Board

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