Everybody loves a park. This past year, taxpayers and legislators voted to put up real money to show their affection.
In November, 175 state or municipal ballot initiatives dealing with land issues--more than 80 percent of those proposed--were approved. In all, the electorate committed $7.5 billion to land acquisition and conservation. "These things are succeeding at a rate equal to or greater than school bonds," says Rush Shay, director of public policy for the Land Trust Alliance.
The largest voter-approved initiative was an Ohio measure that authorizes $200 million to preserve farmland, parks and waterways and another $200 million to clean up brownfields. In fact, land-use initiatives that include recreational or mixed-use provisions in their language tended to be more successful than those that focused strictly on preservation. Overcrowding of recreational facilities--tennis courts, golf courses, soccer fields--is a major factor putting initiatives on the ballot.
In Seattle, for instance, city council member Judy Nicastro, who plays soccer, says her team can't always get field time in the city because Seattle's parks are so overbooked. So Nicastro, who ran for office on a growth-management platform, along with other city council members sent to the voters a ballot initiative to provide $199 million worth of bonds for parks and open space.
"We felt something this large in scale was a decision voters should make, because voters are taxing themselves," she says. Nicastro adds that they kept the measure, which ultimately passed by 10 percentage points, at just under $200 million to prevent sticker shock.
Some advocates of growth-control policy worry that open-space initiatives can lead to piecemeal decision making. Although cheered by the positive reaction to land preservation, some feel that the ballot phenomenon is more an outgrowth of the popularity of the initiative process itself than a concern about sprawl and open space. Still, with the farms and other open land that ring cities rapidly being converted into new housing and shops, more and more Americans seem convinced that the only way to put cherished open space out of reach of developers is to buy it.
Even the developers who rally against most regulatory initiatives don't seem to mind bond and tax measures devoted to land purchases. "We don't have any problem if people want to keep land open or extinguish property rights if they go ahead and buy it," said Robert McNamara, a policy planner for the National Association of Home Builders.
Numerous legislatures have also gotten directly into the open-space act, notably in several Northeastern states, such as Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. New Jersey, for example, which has the highest percentage of developed land of any state, has been providing financial incentives to encourage projects that restore brownfields, such as a plan to turn 900 acres of the Meadowlands into four golf courses.
But growth control is becoming an issue even in the wide-open West. In Utah, the state now appropriates about $3 million a year to purchase land, mostly in the Salt Lake City area. The state's major metro area is suffering growing pains after 13 straight years of rapid growth.
All this does not mean that everyone backs open-space spending, even when it comes down to land preservation and recreational facilities in urban areas. Anti-sprawl initiatives failed in Colorado and Arizona. The initiatives, modeled after policies in Portland, Oregon, would have limited growth to core urban areas. Voters grew concerned when they saw studies indicating housing costs might rise.