To most of us, many of the benefits of open space are quite obvious: open space provides us with places to hike and reconnect with nature; it also boosts the the local and regional economy by attracting tourists to do the same; farms ensure local sources of food; and protected lands around reservoirs and rivers help to guarantee an abundant supply of clean drinking water. In short, open space adds tremendous value both locally and regionally. But it can be hard to quantify this value.
Regional Plan Association, along with scholars from SUNY New Paltz recently attempted to quantify the value of open space in the region’s Mid-Hudson Valley (Ulster, Dutchess, Orange and Putnam Counties). Our latest report Adding Value: Open Space conservation in the Mid-Hudson Valley, finds that that the services provided by the 1.65 million acres of undeveloped open space in this area save our region approximately $3.5 billion each year. This open space protects us from floods, filters water, sequesters carbon and more, which means we don’t have to spend tax dollars to provide these services.
Yet, tensions exist. Land trusts have played a critical role in the protection of open space throughout our region. These stewards help to move open space into protected status by purchasing land or the right to develop land from willing private property owners. However, as private, undeveloped land becomes protected it changes the tax status of the land, resulting in a loss of revenue to the municipality in which the land is located. As municipalities face tighter and tighter budgets, the burden of lost revenue has, in some communities, caused a backlash against land trusts, threatening future open space protection.
In order to demonstrate the many layers of the value of open space, RPA and SUNY New Paltz created a set of over 20 updatable indicators across environmental, economic, quality of life and stewardship categories. Additionally, an analysis of exempt properties was carried out and found that land owned by land trusts accounts for less than 1 percent of the total value of exempt land in the four county study area.
We need both open space and thriving municipalities. To balance these two priorities, the report lays out a series of recommendations ranging from ways to prioritize protection of open space and adopting smart growth policies to reduce pressure on unprotected open space, to actions that expand public knowledge about and improve practices around property tax exemptions while finding ways to offset unfair burdens of lost revenue from exempt land.
The Mid-Hudson Valley is a beautiful and desirable place to live and visit, defined by its vast and connected open space. By fully understanding the value that open space affords in balance with fair and transparent tax-exemption practices, the Mid-Hudson can continue to be one of the region’s most treasured places.
This study is a report of the Fourth Regional Plan.