The state of Utah has an opportunity to play an important role in preserving open space. If the state stands still, open space will continue to disappear at an alarming rate. If the people of the state of Utah treasure the values of our heritage, reflected in farmland, prime watersheds, mountain vistas, canyon streams and access to trails and waterways, we must take action as a state to invest in protection of diminishing open spaces.
On July 27, Utah Democratic candidates at all levels of government announced a substantive agenda to protect open space for Utah's future. We have carefully evaluated what other states have done, Utah's policies today and how we can protect open space for future generations.Predictably, the Republicans responded that suggestions of their "inaction" were "laughable" and that "we've
RepublicansT done all of these things" called for in the Democratic proposal. An election year brings partisan bickering, but Democrats want action on open-space issues. With the imbalance in the state Legislature, Democrats are stifled in proposals or discussions. To debate an important policy topic like open space, Democrats must go to the people of this state with proposals that have been hamstrung in the Legislature.
We reiterate here the outline of our Democratic proposal and point out some Republican activities of the past three years. We invite public scrutiny on this issue and for our Republican colleagues to join us in meaningful action. There are three elements in the Democratic proposal.
To accomplish open-space preservation in Utah, we must leverage state resources with the private sector, local governments and the federal government. The state of Utah can lead by supporting private partners who dedicate a high percentage of developable ground to open-space pres-er-va-tion, cluster homes, dedicate trails for access to public lands and place preservation areas (conservation easements) in public or nonprofit private sector hands.
Local governments need help understanding available tools and approaches and implementing their objectives. The state can provide that expertise. Finally, the state should establish a program with the federal government to exchange lands suitable for development for lands deserving of open-space protection.
2. State planning assistance
The state should embark on a statewide planning effort with citizen involvement to inventory and survey valuable open space, summarize tools available to local governments and state agencies and chart a course for open-space preservation. Analysis was done through the Utah Critical Lands Committee appointed by Gov. Mike Leavitt; now the public should help establish a strategic approach. Open-space issues often go beyond local government boundaries and need regional planning and coordination, a natural role for the state. A state open-space plan would guide achievement of Utah's open-space objectives.
A successful Utah open-space program requires a meaningful financial commitment, absent in Utah to date. Most states in the nation, including most of Utah's neighbors, have an open-space funding program, relying on a variety of funding sources.
Well-conceived open-space preservation should occur consistent with other state goals, most notably balancing affordable housing with open-space preservation. Among the options Democrats will consider is a Housing and Conservation Fund. The fund would provide incentives for affordable housing while preserving open space.
For example, special incentives, through tax advantages and reduced-interest loans, could be available to housing developments that preserved valuable open space and provide a percentage of affordable housing. If a developer set aside a high percentage of open space through clustering development while leaving a higher proportion of the land in open space, and dedicated 20 percent of the land to families of lesser incomes, he or she could take advantage of the program. Such a program has proven immensely valuable in Vermont for open-space preservation while providing affordable housing.
We propose the following funding sources:
- Local-option funding after affirmative vote by local population (state authorization for this option rejected twice by Republicans in Legislature);
- Dedication of a portion of state surplus monies annually; and
- Bonding program approved by a vote of the residents of Utah. A bonding program has been successful in many other states to acquire critical open spaces. A bond of $200-$300 million ($20-$30 million dollars a year for 10 years) would reflect a modest investment given the need for open-space protection.
Any state funding program should be on a "willing seller" basis without use of public condemnation powers.
As Democrats in the Utah Legislature, we place this proposal on the table for public debate. Please contact your Democratic candidates with your opinions and ideas. In October, Democratic candidates will coordinate responses to this initial proposal and announce a refined proposal for legislative drafting. We look forward to your responses and working with like-minded Republicans to achieve protection of Utah's open spaces.