A green value added

Published: Sunday, January 6, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 6, 2008 at 12:00 a.m.

In 1993 we were having a heated argument in Gainesville over the proposed Hogtown Creek Greenway. A guy called me up to inform me that ever since the city opened Ring Park, residents of Forest Ridge were having to contend with vandalism, breaks-ins and associated ills. The neighbors over there were fed up, he assured me.

So I did what newspaper people are supposed to do. I went to Forest Ridge and started knocking on doors. I wasn't able to find anybody who professed to being fed up with Ring Park; quite the opposite, in fact.

I did talk to the owners of a house right on Ring Park who told me they loved living there but were about to retire and move away from Gainesville.

So I bought their house, practically on the spot. Been there ever since.

Ring Park is my neighbor and I'm still waiting to experience all the terrible things that guy told me about. Instead of backing up to yet another quarter-acre ranchette, my yard abuts a nature preserve. And so far as I've been able to tell, there's no downside to that. My kids grew up exploring the turns and bends of the creek and walking its network of trails.

I only bring this up because periodically we get into these arguments over whether public parks, open space and greenways are community assets or liabilities; magnets for crime and vandalism or value-added greenery.

The question may be particularly relevant now because as a community we're likely to spend some time this year talking about whether or not to provide more funding for Alachua County Forever.

Voters approved that initiative in the 2000 election backed by a quarter mill property tax levy that raised $29 million to buy and preserve environmentally significant lands.

That represents a relatively modest investment of about $25 a year per property owner. Today, the county has accumulated about 11,000 acres of preserved land - forests and wetlands and prairies - thanks to the careful leveraging of ACT dollars to attract matching federal, state and private funding.

There's a pretty good chance that ACT supporters will mount another campaign this year to convince voters to reauthorize the program with renewed taxing authority.

But wait a minute: We're in the middle of a property tax revolt. Alachua County Forever has already taken a lot of formerly private land off the tax rolls. With school district and local government budgets already tight, can we afford to take still more property off the tax rolls?

Actually, that's the wrong question to ask.

The real question is whether the purchase and preservation of public green space detracts from or adds value to the tax base.

When ACF was approved in 2000, the county's tax base was about $6 billion. Since then, it's just about doubled to about $12 billion. Because virtually all of the land purchased by the program had generous agricultural tax exemptions, its total taxable value would hardly make a dent in the grand scheme of things.

But even that's not the real point. "Could it be that part of our appreciation in property values has to do with the livability that greenspace provides a community," poses Robert Hutchinson, former county commissioner who helped spearhead the original ACT initiative.

To answer that question, county officials hired Cape Ann Economics, a Massachusetts-based consulting firm. Analyzing property tax records and using GIS software to overlay green space areas, the firm was able to demonstrate "a strong correlation between parcel value and proximity to parks and open space."

In other words, the closer your property is to undeveloped greenspace, the more valuable it is likely to be, all other things being equal.

And that's no surprise. If there's a nature park or a greenway close to home, you are likely to want to use it.

Before we moved to Forest Ridge, we lived in Palmview Estates. At the time there were acres and acres of undeveloped woodlands right across 16th Boulevard. We often saw neighbors over there waking their dogs or strolling among the trees.

Today that land is covered by subdivisions and office parks. The owner apparently felt no obligation to keep the property in its natural state for the enjoyment of the neighbors. And who can blame him for that?

But Ring Park is always going to be Ring Park. It's a quality of life amenity that turns out to be quantifiable.

"Proximity to open space generally adds $8,000 to $10,000 to parcel value," the company's report concluded. For properties that actually touch upon open space, the impact can be "as high as $25,000 per parcel."

"All told, some 12,700 parcels in the county are close enough to open space to benefit from this increased value. The total impact on their value is just under $150 million, and the overall impact on property tax revenues is approximately $3.5 million per year."

Far from a drain on the tax base, greenspace acquisition is a tax enhancer. My home is worth more than it would otherwise be worth by benefit of backing up to Ring Park. I pay more taxes for that green value added but it's worth it to live next door to nature.

Ron Cunningham is The Sun's editorial page editor. Write him at cunninr@gvillesun.com.

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