Open Space Preservation
2022 Webinar: Preserving Open Space - Status and Potential
Open space preservation is alive and well in southeastern PA! This presentation shared efforts at the county level from across our region to increase protected lands for farming, parks, habitat, flood protection, and more. We learned about the different approaches to open space preservation within the region, exciting recent land preservation successes, and opportunities for future preservation.
Chester County recently reached the milestone of having 30 percent of the county preserved as open space. Presenters described the various efforts and data tracking systems that have been important to the county’s open space success.
The presenters have provided this document with links to open space resources within each county, including links to each county’s Return on Environment report. If you have follow-up questions for the presenters, their contact information can be found below. Here is a link to the session recording.
Bill Hartman, Trails and Open Space Section Chief, Montgomery County Planning Commission
Ellen Miramontes, Senior Trails and Open Space Planner, Montgomery County Planning Commission
Steve Beckley, Open Space and Trails Manager, Delaware County Planning Department
Facts & Stats
More than two million acres of open space are lost each year in the U.S. to development. Loss of open space has many side effects. More traffic, increased school populations, increased taxes to cover an increased need for school and township services, vanishingscenic landscapes, loss of historic places and structures, damage to watersheds and diminished water quality, and increased downstream flooding are just some of the consequences of overdevelopment and lost open space.
Developers have the MPC, we have the state constitution
While several townships and counties have dedicated open space funding to purchase or place easements on land, it’s never enough. Our growing population and the inefficiencies of modern economics continue to put pressure on land. For a successful conservation deal to take place, a generous landowner needs to accept a lower “conservation price” for their property than what a deep-pocketed developer is willing to pay. Developers are willing to overpay for land because township ordinances and state law favor their business model over preservation. They simply make up for their overpayment by adding more housing or commercial density.
The Municipal Planning Code for Pennsylvania dictates what townships can or cannot do to protect open space, and its fundamental opposition to land conservation is a testament to the power of the Pennsylvania Builders Association. Even if a township wants to do the right thing and preserve open space, many times, the MPC puts them in a corner and forces them to accept high density development. As the overriding municipal planning law in the state, townships must taylor their land use ordinances to hew to the MPC’s provisions. This is not to say that open space is not being saved throughout the state, but funds to do so will always be limited compared to what developers have at their disposal which means that development will continue to outpace preservation. And by having nothing codified in state law to limit development in any meaningful way, overdevelopment will remain the rule, not the exception.
Another state law which benefits developers at the expense of open space preservation is Act 319. Passed in 1974 at a time of environmental awakening, “Clean and Green,” as Act 319 is called, provides for substantial tax subsidies to landowners who keep their land open. For some landowners, the subsidies can be as much as a 90% reduction in the tax assessment of their open land. Unfortunately, no permanent easements are placed on the land and enrollees can leave the program whenever they choose. The penalty for leaving is a mere seven years of “rollback taxes” even if the landowner enrolled in 1974. In other words, taxpayers will have heavily subsidized the ownership of a private piece of land for 37 years if someone leaves the program in 2018. In a more sane state like New York, the penalty for withdrawing from one of their preservation programs is the last ten years of unadjusted taxes multiplied by five, plus interest. The NY penalty in many cases is greater than what was saved with lowered tax bills. Consequently, very few landowners leave that state’s program.
More than half of Pennsylvania’s 30 million acres has been enrolled in the program at some point since 1974. A 2010 Farmland Preservation report indicated that 9.5 million acres were still enrolled in the program. The millions of acres that have been withdrawn from Clean and Green over the course of 40 years (i.e., developed) represent a loss of local revenue possibly in the billions. What did Pennsylvania taxpayers get in return for that lost revenue? More density, a degraded environment, and a lowered quality of life. It’s no wonder, then, that land trusts in Pennsylvania do not regard Act 319 as a conservation program. It does nothing to permanently preserve land and subsidizes developers who are warehousing their land for decades at steep discounts until they choose to develop.
One tool that’s been used recently to resist overdevelopment is the Pennsylvania Environmental Rights Amendment (Article 1, Section 27) which unanimously passed the PA Assembly twice and then received the highest approval results of any previous amendment referendum. This amendment guarantees the residents of Pennsylvania “the right to clean air, pure water, and the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic, and aesthetic values of the environment.” Several conservation advocacy groups have made the argument that overdeveloping a tract of land – regardless of what zoning stipulates– is a violation of the Article 1, Section 27. The Beaver Valley Conservancy on the Delware/Pennsylvania state line recently scored a victory vis a vis this amendment in a 2017 decision in an appeal of a land use approval to build in a putative “wildlife refuge.”
There are many groups on the ground in townships all over the region organized to fight overdevelopment and preserve our vanishing open places These are not to be confused with land conservancies who only deal with willing landowners agreeing to conserve their land. Advocacy groups, on the other hand, engage in fights that land trusts won’t touch, but they’re doing the important work of raising awareness about the overdevelopment threat.
Some of these advocacy groups are:
- S.A.V.E., in Southern Chester County https://www.savepa.org/
- Save Marple Greenspace, in Marple Township, Delaware County https://www.savemarplegreenspace.com/
- Beaver Valley Preservation Alliance, Delaware County https://www.facebook.com/beavervalleyalliance/
- Neighbors for Crebilly, Chester County https://www.neighborsforcrebilly.org/
What Can I Do?
Don’t assume that beautiful spot of land near your home is protected. Find out whether it’s safe under a conservation easement or if it could be developed. Be proactive and start a local group to advocate for its conservation You can also throw your support to any of the groups listed above. They are always in need of help.