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Inside Politics

Red and blue states weigh billions worth of green space

By Jeff Green
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Suburban Cobb County faces what officials say is an urgent problem, and as with scores of other communities nationwide, voters are being asked to help fix it in November.

The problem is expanding development and too little parkland for a growing population. A measure on the ballot in Cobb will test a national trend over the last two decades for bipartisan support on government-funded land conservation.

The county just northwest of Atlanta is solidly Republican, and county voters have shown skepticism on government spending, rejecting a proposed sales tax increase in 2000 that would have earmarked $45 million for green space.

But officials say the county is almost 90 percent developed and that existing parkland has been trampled by overuse. That includes the Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park and parts of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area.

So, the County Commission voted unanimously to try again this year, asking residents to support a $40 million bond to buy land for parks. This year's measure would not require a tax increase.

"It was felt that if property was not acquired in the short term for green space, we frankly would have lost that opportunity forever," said County Commission Chairman Sam Olens, a Republican.

The Cobb measure is one of at least 123 tax or bond initiatives on ballots nationwide in November at the state level or lower, according to research compiled by the Trust for Public Land, a California-based nonprofit group.

Nearly $6 billion for land conservation is at stake. And unlike other questions facing voters, partisanship plays only a minimal role in the voting, according to the trust, which has analyzed such votes going back to 1988.

That's about when local and state funding for land conservation began to overtake federal funding, said Ernest Cook, director of the trust's conservation finance program.

Of the 1,862 initiatives tracked since then, 1,422 -- or 76 percent -- have passed. In 2004, voters approved about 75 percent of the 219 measures, worth a total of $4.1 billion.

"Many communities are trying to cope with the impact of sprawling development," Cook said. "They're concerned about losing their farms and forests and quality of life."

"People across the political spectrum care equally about quality of life in their communities," he said.

While the 123 measures are spread across 23 states this year, the largest sums are up for grabs in California, New Jersey, New York, Florida and Oregon. Of those, only Florida voted majority Republican in 2004.

Time running out

With the U.S. population continuing to expand -- reaching the 300 million milestone this month -- the clock is ticking for some parts of the country.

"There is quite a bit of interest in protecting land in the faster-growing areas," Cook said.

But for many communities, he said, "the response is often too little, too late." The trust urges communities to plan "to make sure that development is guided to the right place."

The longer communities wait to buy parkland, the more expensive it gets, Cook said. And that's only in the cases where it remains available.

"You pay for it once and you've saved it forever," he said.

Additional development can often cost local governments more money than it generates, he said.

"Often, communities will use protection of open spaces as a means to avoid having to extend sewer lines, and build new schools and infrastructure," Cook said.

With land conservation, he said, "generally a whole community benefits because it gives people access to nature. It helps to keep energy costs down; it can improve the air quality and it can avoid or at least minimize traffic congestion."

But that might not be enough to convince voters in California to support the largest measure at stake in November, which Cook said is "a difficult one to call."

About $2.3 billion of a $5.4 billion bond would be dedicated to land conservation. But voters will also be presented with a separate bond package of about $37 billion for various uses. That, Cook said, "is asking a lot of the voters of California."

Despite the historically high rate of approval, Cook said, "I have never seen any indication that people feel the job is done."

"On the contrary, I've seen counties and towns that have gone back repeatedly to get voter approval for additional funding because the job wasn't finished the first time around," he said.

That includes Nassau County, New York. Voters in the Long Island community approved a $50 million bond in 2004 to purchase open space and protect water quality.

"Nassau County found that $50 million in a large urban county didn't go very far and are going to go back to the voters this year for $100 million," he said.

'Culture of conservation'

In the trust's opinion polls, the top reason people give for opposing the ballot measures is concern that governments won't spend wisely or in the manner promised, Cook said.

That's the primary reason that David Chastain, co-founder of the Cobb County Taxpayers Association, said he plans to vote against the county's measure.

"The same people who want the $40 million to buy green space are the same people who are asphalting and providing zoning variances for all this development that takes away the green space and the trees to begin with," he said.

Chastain, the chairman of the Cobb County Libertarian Party, said he would prefer to see property tax rates rolled back further than the commission has already done.

"I'm just concerned this thing is going to backfire and that it's going to end up that the general fund is going to be squeezed," he said.

"What bothers me is the majority of Cobb County voters will not be fully informed."

But Olens said support has come from both ends of the political spectrum.

"It definitely transcends partisan politics," he said. "I think there's a common feeling that the environment is important, that it's too important to not lose too much of the tree canopy, and that we need places to relax, to enjoy."

Cobb has been at the heart of the growth that made the Atlanta region one of the poster children for the national anti-sprawl movement, exploding in population from 196,793 in 1970 to 654,900 in 2006.

The county of 340 square miles, or more than 217,000 acres, has about 5,000 acres of park space. That means just over 2 percent of the land is set aside for green space, and Olens said half of that is leased and not guaranteed forever.

Olens said he would like to see Cobb acquire 2,000 more acres of park space for a total of 7,000. But $40 million will likely buy less than 500 acres.

Like Nassau County, Cobb is following the trust's advice by starting relatively small. "It's considered a great first step," Olens said.

Cook said the next step could be easier. He sees "a real culture of conservation growing," one that is gaining support again at the federal level.

"It's a ball that really is rolling, and I expect it to be gathering steam," he said.


Officials say much of Cobb County's park space, such as the Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park, has been trampled by overuse.



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