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Greenbelt Advisory Board, March 9

Accommodate small landowners but not at expense of standards
Beach communities seek more funds
Warwick Jones

The Greenbelt Advisory Board met for the second time since Council affirmed the fundamentals of the County Greenbelt Plan. Yesterday, it began deliberation over issues Council had raised, as well as some others. The last meeting of the GAB was mostly taken up with a presentation by Staff on the “purchase of development rights” (PDR) as a tool in the conservation tool box. The use may be particularly useful for the preservation of farm land and of particular value for small land holders.

The session began with a short discussion of PDR’s and a comment from the Director of Planning, Dan Pennick on the County’s Agriculture Committee, He suggested there was merit in the GAB discussing the Greenbelt program with the Committee and attempting to find out the interest that might exist amongst small land owners in PDRs. He also indicated there were issues relating to PDRs – how were they to be managed and monitored, and how to publicize the possible availability of funds. The Board agreed that staff and the Chair should meet with the Agriculture Committee and discussion by the GAB should follow on the results of the meeting.

Don't lower review standards
One member expressed concern about this possible outreach to small landowners. There had been a mood on Council that funds were flowing to large landowners and that the small land owners were missing out. This was seen as an injustice. The member said the primary purpose of Greenbelt Program was to create greenbelts. It was not concerned with social justice in any way that it was defined. There was no objection on the part of the GAB member to small landowner’s participation in the Greenbelt Program, but the Program's standards should not be lowered to draw more applicants. A ranking system was devised by the GAB and included in the Greenbelt Plan. Applications by small landowners should be assessed and ranked in the same manner as applications for financing over larger parcels.

Some discussion followed, mainly clarifying the ranking system. It was suggested that in the ranking process, points were awarded for size and thereby small projects were generally likely to score lower than large projects. Should size be eliminated as a question in the ranking process? In the view of this member, no! A number of members indicated agreement that standards should not be changed to accommodate small land holders.

Problem is obtaining leverage
It is worthwhile noting the comment made by a representative of the Nature Conservancy at the completion of the GAB meeting. He said the problem for small landowners was leverage. Applications by conservation groups were generally for easements for large parcels and where owners gave up much of the value of the easement. (e.g., The value of the conservation easement may be $1 million but the owner is willing to take only $250,000 in exchange. The $750,000 balance is effectively given up and becomes “leverage”.) Small landowners tend to not be so generous. And as said at the previous meeting of the GAB, the conservation groups tended to confine themselves to large tracts. To work with small landowners would too quickly dissipate their management resources.

Definition of an eligible greenbelt recipient
Next on the agenda were two concerns of the author. The first was that the Council had expanded the definition of an “eligible Greenbelt recipient” to include “an agency of or instrumentality of the US Government and any other entities that may be approved at the discretion of the County on a case by case basis”. I objected to the underlined part. It went too far and I thought it should be removed or amended. Staff said it was there to accommodate neighborhood non-profits and besides, any applicant for greenbelt funds still had to meet all other criteria.

Concern over large grant to Town of Hollywood
The other concern was the Council’s decision to ignore the Greenbelt Bank’s recommendation of $3 million grant to the Town of Hollywood. Council voted to award $4.8 million, the full amount sought by the town, The Bank and some Council members thought that $4.8 million was too much for too little. The grant represented $666,000 per acre. The highest grant to any other rural town was $100,000 per acre and most grants were well below that. The GAB Chair rightly said that there was little we could do about it, Council was king! I thought that at least the GAB could register its concern. But members, at least publicly, did not share my concern on this or the other issue I raised.

Beach communites request reconsideration of funding
The issue of funding of beach communities was discussed after short presentation from members of Isle of Palms and Folly Beach Councils. The Greenbelt Plan allocates funds to urban areas on the basis of population. This gave the municipalities an entitlement of $474,000 and $218,000 respectively. But the amounts were useless to the municipalities as land was expensive and the monies were insufficient to make significant purchases of easements or fee simple land. Obviously they would like more funds. But they recognized the problem. The GAB would need to alter the system for allocation of funds, or alternatively, take away from other programs. Probably most GAB members sympathized with the beach communities, one suggesting that they try harder to get matching funds for financing purchases. But nobody suggested an alteration to the existing program to accommodate their wishes.

Interesting view from Nature Conservancy member
Finally, the member of the Nature Conservancy who spoke at the end of the session expressed an interesting opinion. He acknowledged the issue over the Hollywood purchase and the problem with small landowners – there was no leverage in the Hollywood transaction and probably limited scope in relation to small land owners. To make the task of the GAB (and the Greenbelt Bank) easier, maybe the GAB should consider making leverage a more important factor in assessment of a project. Maybe a threshold should be set. This would lessen the scope for politics to influence decisions of Council.

The author is a member of the Greenbelt Advisory Board

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