Sunday, October 24, 2010

A Case Examination of Policy for Natural Resource Management

 Westerlo County, New York
 
    Residents of Westerlo have shown concern over the growing problems of air and water pollution, soil erosion, destruction of wildlife habitats, rapid population growth, the fragmentation of the rural landscape, the impact of the proliferation of cars on the physical and social environment, dissatisfaction with greater-than-local governmental controls on natural resource management, lack of social infrastructure, and threats to the property rights and property values of landowners.

I believe that, in order to best manage growth and protect natural resources, the town of Westerlo should use public money to purchase the development rights of any lands which it deems most important to allocate specific uses. The town should also employ a system of differential property taxation in order to delay rapid land conversion and development, and to give the town an opportunity to come up with a comprehensive plan for the uses that will be allowed in each area of the town.

Purchasing the development rights of valuable areas such as the reservoir, or any lands in low-lying areas that may be prone to flooding, would allow the town to protect water quality by limiting public access to it. Were the town to then sell those development rights to a private investor interested in constructing a water purification and treatment facility on the site of the reservoir, human pollution, pollution from automobiles, animal pollution, soil erosion, and pollution from runoff could  be greatly decreased,  thus ensuring a high level  of water quality for the residents of Albany County.

The town should first use state enabling legislation to purchase development rights to those lands it deems most necessary to protect, such as wetlands or farmlands with rich soils. Then, it should appropriate funds to establish an administrative agency to operate the program. Next, the agency would draft program regulations for the purchase of development rights, including a method for preserving farmland. The agency would then consider applications to sell development rights, hire an independent appraiser to appraise the development rights value of each farm, negotiate the conservation easement price with the landowner, purchase the development rights, and monitor and enforce the terms of the easement.

This plan would largely prevent land use conversion and development. It is not typically difficult to implement, and when used correctly, it can achieve strict, permanent regulatory action in the district from which land rights are purchased. Purchasing the development rights of certain areas would be less expensive than if the town were to purchase the land itself. The plan would not allow takings to be claimed, as the town would make compensation in exchange for regulatory action. It would not make it impossible for landowners in the transfer district to sell their land; the landowner retains the right to stay on the land, and any other rights he might have, besides the right to develop the land for uses of which the city disapproves.

The town should also employ a system of differential property taxation for agricultural and forestlands. The town should value highest those lands that it would most like to see developed into uses that maximize the productive potential of the land. With this method, it can do so without compromising the quality of adjacent lands or wildlife habitats, and without forcing career or hobby agriculturalists or foresters to sell their land.

Differential property taxation is perceived as a helpful tool for preventing fragmentation of the rural landscape. It would give the town the opportunity to take time to decide what uses are preferential in each area of the town. This plan would likely delay land development and conversion, although it would not prevent it entirely.

In differential property taxation, the town enters into contracts with landowners for several years at a time, and agrees to keep the property tax rates low for those landowners who are using their lands in ways the town finds conducive to the protection of the physical environment. The town can raise property taxes on owners who reside on large plots of land and are not using the land to its full agricultural potential, which would eventually lead to the sale of the land to an investor who will develop the land to a more intensive agricultural use.

Under this system, the difference in assessed value between the most productive use and the agricultural use multiplied by the local tax rate determines the size of the tax break. This would mean that those farmers who own land with the greatest difference between the value of the most productive use and the value of the agricultural use would save the most money in property taxes. It also means that there would be a small increase in the taxes of landowners who use their land for purposes not preferred by the city.

To ensure that land use in the future will be conducive to productivity and environmental health, the town should pass an ordinance requiring that any investor who buys certain plots of land after a specified date should have to develop the land in a way the town would prefer. This is especially important for the many agricultural lands with steep slopes in the area. The town should give tax incentives for landowners who convert these lands into terraced agriculture, which would  save moisture,  prevent soil erosion,  and allow for  the maximum  use of space for farming.

The town could cut air pollution and prevent further encroachment on wildlife habitats by passing ordinances restricting the location of roads to places where runoff and car exhaust are unlikely to damage agricultural and forestlands. Another approach would be to design road systems that encourage people to carpool. The town should also consider using public funds to buy development rights and sell them to investors interested in locating depots for energy-efficient public transportation systems, such as bus and taxicab companies, in downtown Westerlo, and/or a light rail system along the highway to Albany. This would promote population growth in Westerlo, and the zoning and differential property taxation ordinances that the town will have put in place by the time public transportation systems become necessary will promote sustainable development, providing the town funding for social infrastructure such as police and fire stations, schools, libraries, and improvements to roads. The town would also do well to ensure a mixture of residential and commercial uses near the center of the town and other areas of highly-concentrated population, so as to lower the number of people who would require motor transportation to get to and from commercial and residential areas.

I do not believe that a transfer of development rights program would be in Westerlo’s best interest because such a programs are difficult to implement, especially considering the expected cost to the public bank to buy development rights if no private investors are interested in purchasing properties the town wants to conserve. Given the small population of the town compared to the size of the agriculture and forestry lands the citizens want to preserve, this would be difficult for the town to afford. Also, transfer of development rights programs are not as effective as purchase of development rights programs are in making sure that lands in which the town wants to prohibit or delay development or conversion are successfully protected. TDRs (Transfer-of-Development Rights) would occasionally only allow the town to relocate development rights to elsewhere on the parcels.



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