Ramesh Buch: Value for value on land buys

Published: Wednesday, September 1, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, August 31, 2010 at 3:12 p.m.

In his Aug. 30 Speaking Out, "Ways to face new fiscal realities," Jim Stringfellow made some statements concerning the voter approved Alachua County Forever (ACF) program that need clarification.

He wrote, "Some recent purchases have raised concerns about inordinately high prices paid and appropriateness of certain parcels purchased."

I can state unequivocally that "appropriateness" and "paying the right price" are fundamental to the ACF program and the process that governs it. Each property is nominated by the public, evaluated by professional ecologists, and vetted by a citizen's board.

After approval by the County Commission, it is appraised by two independent, private real-estate appraisers to provide us with current market value estimates. A contract is negotiated, and the Commission approves the purchase.

To date, we have paid an average of 92 percent of market value, with no deal ever exceeding appraised value.

The additional good news for taxpayers is that we have paid only 34 percent of the cost of land acquisition from ACF funds. The remaining 66 percent has been paid by leveraging dollars with partners such as Florida Communities Trust and the St. John River Water Management District.

Stringfellow also mentioned ACF's impact on the tax base. While it is undeniable that land is removed from the tax rolls, the real question is: is it worth it?

Nearly all of the ACF acquired land was classified as Agricultural. This means that it had low taxable values to begin with. ACF has acquired 2 percent of the county's acreage but decreased the tax base by just 0.05 percent.

The Trust for Public Land's 2004 study of Alachua County demonstrated our tax base actually benefits from open space. There is an increase in adjacent private property values due to the market's willingness to pay for that proximity. According to the study, in Alachua County the amount of that benefit is $150 million in enhanced property value, generating $3.5 million in property taxes annually.

In addition to the financial benefits, quality of life benefits include outdoor recreation, stress relief, aesthetics, heat-island effect amelioration, drinking water recharge and wildlife habitat.

I encourage your readers to learn more by going to the county's website at www.alachuacounty.us and following the links to the Environmental Protection Department page where there are numerous links to the ACF program.

Ramesh Buch is Alachua County's land conservation manager.

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