September 7, 2012

Open space moves a sign of pessimism

Theodore Roosevelt died in 1919, less than 100 years ago. Among his legacies was preserving what was best and most intrinsic about our land — the parks and great open spaces that characterized our frontier spirit. Teddy Roosevelt recognized the beauty and quality of these natural monuments, as close to eternal as man could get.

But just as national Republicans announce their intention to open public lands for drilling, some Democrats in New York and the Northeast are aligning themselves with fracking interests that want to open up New York state land to this dangerous procedure. On a countywide level, housing initiatives intended to maintain socio-economic and racial balance are inadvertently threatening ecological initiatives. On a local level, in Bedford, preservation of open space was pitted against jobs in bitter board sessions last fall.

These political maneuvers only serve to make saving land not just difficult but well-nigh impossible, relying on the beneficence of a tiny few who have the foresight and wisdom to recognize the intrinsic value — and long-term financial advantages — of keeping land in its native state.

In the l990s there was a renaissance of awareness of the benefits of preserving land, a movement that took hold not only in Bedford, but in towns where land is the essence of the community, such as Cape Cod and the East End of Long Island. Bedford took the positive step of creating a taxpayer-funded program to purchase parcels considered significant.

Since it was created, the fund has been tapped for more than $4 million in land purchases, leading to permanent open space preservation on more than 71 acres, including significant parcels on the Burke Preserve in 2002, the Zima property and Leatherman’s Ridge in 2005, Vernon Hills in 2006, and a 13.5-acre site on Ridge Road in a cooperative effort with the land trust, neighbors and the city DEP last year. This summer, the board approved allocating $200,000 from the open space fund for the purchase of 20 acres of land near Twin Lakes, with a total price tag of $4.25 million, in partnership with the Mianus River Gorge Preserve, the Nature Conservancy and private donors.

Pound Ridge followed suit on a slightly smaller scale but with equally important results.

Pound Ridge used its fund to purchase an easement between Long Ridge Road and the Mianus River, which helps to maintain a buffer between homes along the river and the preserve’s trail. The fund also helped to save the Eastwoods Road Preserve, a 30-acre parcel.

So, why this year, is Bedford presenting a watered-down version of the original open space plan, reducing the funds from 3 percent per transaction to 1 percent, and why is Pound Ridge considering eliminating the proposal altogether?

In Bedford, the open space fund currently stands at about $2.8 million, according to town officials. If the proposed 1 percent tax is approved by voters, it would result in about $179,000 per year designated solely for open space over the next five years.

The proposed decrease amounts to a 67 percent reduction.

In Pound Ridge, the town board could ask the residents of the town to repeal the open space tax for a period of time in the Nov. 6 election. The current open space tax is scheduled to expire in 2020. It would be in its third year if the voters decided to continue the tax for 2013. The tax was to increase from 75 cents per $1,000 to $1 per thousand dollars of assessed valuation. The board wants to reset that to zero, according to Mr. Warshauer, because of spikes in medical insurance and pension plan costs for town employees. Town board member Dick Lyman said at an August meeting that the decision to repeal the tax for a period of time was not a philosophical one, but strictly a financial decision.

Residents may not realize it, but the open space dollars that the towns have collected are often matched and redoubled by contributing agencies, whether they are nonprofits or government entities like the New York City Department of Environmental Protection and the New York State Department of State. Similar to the teamwork shown in the Mianus River Gorge preservation, funds for Katonah’s Ridge Road land purchase came from the collaborative effort of neighbors, the town fund and New York City’s DEP. Other preservation efforts are usually similarly collaborative, with the town funds acting as a catalyst for these complex but fruitful deals. We can only hope that this fall’s politically-charged rhetoric does not permanently eliminate the great American tradition of land and wildlife habitat protection.

Read more local coverage of your hometown in this week’s issue of the The Record-Review. Newsstand copies are available at several locations listed above, or subscribe today for convenient home delivery.

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