Tuesday, March 20

Review of Lasting Value

A vibrant city and a healthy countryside are vitally interrelated, or at least they should be. This is one of the conclusions reached by Rick Preutz in the new book Lasting Value from APA Planners’ Press. The author meticulously evaluates twenty-five communities around the United States that are considered successful in preserving land for recreational parks, agricultural, and protection of ecosystems. Beyond simply presenting an inventory of achievements – although it does, down to the acre – the book explores why these policy objectives came into being and how they have been carried out.

As I read through the stories of communities working to protect their natural heritage, one striking fact kept reinforcing itself over and over again. The methods and motivations for land preservation are as varied as the Everglades is from the front range of the Rockies. Localities across the country have arrived at similar conclusions from vastly different starting points, belying the notion of a monolithic environmental movement driving policy forward over the decades.

Let’s start with who the actors are. In the public sector, actions range from local governments purchasing open space through bonds to federal acquisition of park or managed land. The private sector, especially in the form of community land trusts, plays an important role, sometimes partnered with governmental agencies and sometimes operating on an independent, parallel track. What’s interesting is the interplay between all of these scales. Point Reyes National Seashore was borne out of grassroots advocacy at the community level that bubbled up all the way to Congress. In Pima County, Arizona, the story played out in reverse. The county purchased land from the federal Bureau of Land Management that would likely have been sold to developers, in order to place the lots under easements as ranchland.

The motivations behind land preservation also vary significantly. I appreciate how Pruetz, instead of simply listing a rote set of benefits textbook-style, presents real situations in which a message resonated loudly enough to result in action. Lexington-Fayette County, Kentucky, seeks to maintain their tradition as a horse-breeding region. Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, values their farming heritage and the tourist revenue it generates. Minneapolis, Minnesota, wants a fully connected greenway encircling the metro area for recreation. Collier County, Florida, wants to preserve a unique wetland ecosystem. Burlington County, New Jersey, needs to protect an aquifer vital to a large population. And everyone, to some degree, understands the cost savings of avoiding inefficient installation of public services. It’s clear that each place has driven preservation through values conjured up from within, rather than imposed from outside by an abstract ideology or large institution.

And then there are the tools. The complex cocktails of preservation policies and programs gives some insight into how folks like Preutz can make a career out of guiding localities through it all. Boulder County, Colorado has no less than ten distinct programs targeted toward protecting recreational open space and productive ranchland. The author has a clear preference for permanent preservation over regulatory approaches, such as zoning or other land use controls, which I suppose should be obvious with the choice of Lasting Value as a title. Zoning can be changed in a single election cycle, but an easement or purchase of public land is usually effective in perpetuity (as long as easements are enforced, a limitation the book doesn’t really address).

While Lasting Value is likely to inspire those who are already committed to conservation, it does not, in my mind, adequately lay out all of the costs associated with many of the policies described. There are several criticisms that have been lodged against these, and some consideration of the possible pitfalls, in addition to the clear benefits of land conservation, could help decision-makers determine when the use of a tool is appropriate and what side-effects may need to be mitigated.

Housing affordability is an important issue, considering a few back-of-the-envelope calculations. In 2010, the median home value for all metropolitan areas in the U.S was $217,121, which was 4.16 times the median metro income. However, the median home value of counties recognized for preservation in the book was $293,776, or 5.46 times the somewhat higher median income of these areas. This fact alone doesn't point to causation, but see recent Kindle singles by urbanists Matthew Yglesias and Ryan Advent for some explanation on the effects certain limits on development have on housing costs and urban form. I don't believe this is a fatal flaw of land preservation, but it does highlight some consequences of putting more emphasis on where not to build than on encouraging development in the right places.

I'll focus the rest of this post on a critique of Transfer of Development Rights (TDR), because this tool figures so heavily in the communities profiled. TDR is presented as a means for protecting rural land without incurring public cost, but there are some hidden costs to think about. Once again, I don't intend this to be a wholesale dismissal of the tool in all cases, but only a caution to add. See also this report from the Weldon Cooper Center on the pros and cons of the policy.

In a nutshell, A TDR policy designates a sending area, where development is to be discouraged, and a receiving area, where the community would like to allow more residential growth. Developers are then allowed to purchase the right to develop in the receiving area from landowners in the sending area. The transaction is made on an open market at some predetermined ratio, such as one development right for five acres in Montgomery County, Maryland. In exchange, the seller agrees to place their land under a conservation easement.

However, in order to create the conditions for a market in development rights, density must be restricted by zoning in the receiving area – the place where growth is supposedly desired. Although this may seem counter-intuitive, it is necessary to provide an incentive for developers to pay for the right to exceed the requirement. After all, the value of a development right, to a buyer, is exactly the perceived difference in value between what a developer is currently allowed to build and what the right will allow, and this value needs to be high enough to make a sale worthwhile to the rural landowner. Otherwise, the whole system is just a few pages of code in a book on the shelf.

There are a few problems with artificially restricting density in urban areas, in order grease the wheels of the market. The developer may simply choose to sidestep the whole process and build according to the legal low-density allowance. This is a lose-lose-lose game of chicken. If this happens no rural land is preserved, the landowner and developer are not able to maximize their investment, and urban areas are squandered with inappropriately scaled development. Nobody desires this outcome, but the risk of it occurring, particular during times of economic hardship, should be taken into account.

Secondly, when the transfers do happen, they cost the public in "leverage" over development. What does this mean? Suppose a developer does decide to work with a locality in order to exceed density restrictions in the receiving area. Depending on the state, there are a number of concessions the developer could offer. They could deed-restrict a few units for affordable housing, create a bike and pedestrian trail to connect other neighborhoods, use community-supporting urban design, or build basic infrastructure to support the development. Often, a developer will be willing to stretch further to create on-site amenities that also directly benefit the project's bottom-line. However, if the developer could achieve the desired result with the purchase of a development right, all of these negotiations are bypassed and none of these benefits to the neighborhood come to fruition.The end result can be seen as a transfer of resources away from urban neighborhoods and into the accounts of individual rural landowners.

Lasting Value is a thorough and well-documented portrait of the success stories in land preservation, although the book would be improved by a broader definition of success that takes into account how the benefits and costs/risks of conservation have been distributed throughout the community.

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