The Open Space Alternative to Commercial Build-Out

 

(This 859th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on September 9, 2007.)

 

Because I submit my column a week before it is published, this one will not reflect the actions of the Amherst Town Board with regard to the open space initiative proposed by Councilmember Bill Kindel. As I write, the vote could go either way. To get the initiative on the ballot in November, five votes are needed and, even though a plurality of board members favors it, it may not go through.

 

This issue is an important one for all the suburban towns in this region, because it is about more development versus retaining undeveloped land.

 

We in this region have seen what development has done to our quality of life: our suburban streets clogged with traffic, our schools overcrowded, our flood danger rising and the distance to find open land ever increasing.

 

But the developers argue that more people will reduce our tax burden. A recent poll question reflected this argument, asking if people would support the town acquiring open space "if it cost a 2% tax increase." (Even with that clause, the vote was split.)

 

However, the evidence contradicts that clause. Studies in Clarence, Amherst and hundreds of other localities have shown that the taxes produced by new homes do not meet the cost of town services.

 

Item: a study by Fox & Company for the Amherst Industrial Development Agency last year found the town's expenses per housing unit are $1.12 for every dollar taken in by taxes.

 

The key finding of a follow-up study by Eric Gillert, Amherst's Planning Director, analyzed five parcels, comparing the cost to provide services to residential development to the annual cost (amortized by a bond issue) for purchase of those same areas to be retained as open space. The annual savings would amount to $353,060, not an insignificant amount. Gillert's straightforward conclusion: "Purchase of open space can reduce costs to the Town."

 

Item: A national study by John Crompton sponsored by the American Planning Association speaks to this issue. "The conventional wisdom," Crompton says, "which prevails among many decision-makers and taxpayers is that development is the 'highest and best use' of vacant land for increasing municipal revenues. This conventional wisdom is reinforced by developers who claim their projects 'pay for themselves and then some.'"

 

However, Crompton continues, "Cost of Community Services Analyses consistently report that over a wide range of residential densities, and especially in rapidly growing communities, the public costs associated with residential development exceed the public revenues that accrue from it. The emerging prevailing view is that few developments generate sufficient tax payments to pay their way." Crompton calls this "The New Municipal Math" and offers dozens of examples of savings through setting aside land for open and park use.

 

Summarizing, he compares the median cost for what he calls "farm/forest/open space" with "residential" as 37 to $1.15. Crompton's Report is on the web at: www.holmdeltownship-nj.com/filestorage/1061/PropertyValue.pdf.

 

Item: In 1998 the American Planning Association gave the nearby town of Pittsford southeast of Rochester an annual award for developing and implementing its precedent-setting plan for "permanently protecting its greenspaces."

 

Three key findings of the study that led to the Pittsford plan were:

 

      If the town did nothing, taxes would rise several hundred dollars,

      The break-even value of a new home (when tax income met town costs) even then was more than $300,000, and

      The break-even cost for the town to purchase development rights to farms and other open space was $10,000 per acre. (This occurs when bond financing for property purchase equals the additional cost of developing that property for residential use.)

 

Pittsford protected more than 2,000 acres of open land, representing about 2/3 of what remained. They used three mechanisms: direct purchase of 1200 acres, incentive zoning (transfer of development rights) on 200+ acres, and mandatory clustering protecting 600+ acres.

 

It is evident that developers are deeply invested in defeating the Amherst initiative. If they stop it at the Town Board, they won't have to address in a public forum the facts I have outlined in this column.

 

I recently counted over 60 cars waiting for the traffic light at Klein and Hopkins. I hope the Amherst board will have acted to contain this and our other problems related to uncontrolled development.-- Gerry Rising

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Note added after publication: At its September 4, 2007 meeting, the Amherst Town Board passed the motion to allow the bond initiative to appear on the November ballot.