Members of the South Burlington Land Trust gave their “two cents” during the city council’s regular meeting on Monday, Nov. 18, and they’re hoping the city will follow suit.

The group proposed a two-cent tax rate increase to sponsor the purchase of “priority conservation land,” as identified by the city’s Open Space Interim Zoning Committee. The group hopes councilors will present the proposal to voters this March.

“At the rate that South Burlington’s rural lands are disappearing, almost all will be gone in the next decade,” land trust member Rosanne Greco said. “Residents have overwhelmingly said that they support land conservation.”

According to land trust members, a two-cent tax rate increase – realized in the city’s Open Space/Conservation fund – could enable South Burlington to purchase 1,000 acres of priority conservation land for roughly $10 million, within 14 years.

Without the fund, they say the same project would take about 70 years.

“You could do this in 14 years,” Greco said. “Not that you would, but this would just give you the financial ability to do that.”

The Open Space/Conservation Fund, where they propose to house that increase, was established with voters’ approval back in 2000. Currently, it levies a one-cent increase on the tax rate for the conservation and acquisition of open spaces.

Since its origin, it has enabled South Burlington to conserve about 635 acres of land, according to the city’s website. These properties include the Leduc Farm, Underwood Property and, most recently, the Auclair Farm. But through the years it has undergone three alterations accounting for open space maintenance, enhancement projects and recreation. With those, less funds have been spent on land acquisition, land trust member Karen Ryder said.

“If we want to continue our legacy of conserving space, it’s imperative that we’re proactive and positioned to purchase land,” Ryder said.

The land trust board members say that based off current tax data, the fund would raise the average homeowner’s taxes by about $67.22 annually, the average condo owner’s by about $48.22.

Conservation, like any good investment, has returns. Based off data from the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, land conservation has a positive effect on town tax bases, as it controls the cost of community services, Allan Strong, a land trust and open space committee member said.

“Spending a few cents now to conserve land, will be financially beneficial to the city and its residents in the future,” Greco said. “It takes cents and it makes sense.”

According to Strong, state data shows that an increase in the population can increase the tax rate. Sprawling development presents a challenge to maintaining city services as it spreads them across a greater area. This can outpace the income from the growing population.

“We’re challenging ourselves in terms of what development that we as a city can actually support,” Strong said. “You’re not keeping up with those costs of community services by increasing residential development.”

Land trust members say there are economic gains that result from conservation. It can aid with clean air, quality of life and recreation, Strong said, and it can increase returns from recreational and outdoor tourism.

According to one Vermont study, every state dollar invested in conserved land resulted in a $9 return in natural goods and services, Strong said.

The 1,000 acres land trust members used for their conservation proposal is derived from the open space interim zoning committee’s study of South Burlington’s open lands. The open space committee was formed in January 2019 as a result of the city’s interim zoning bylaw, which puts an up to 9-month halt on development in certain areas of South Burlington.

The committee’s charge is to prioritize conservation of existing open spaces, forest blocks and agricultural areas for the sustenance of local ecosystems, Strong said. To do so, members analyzed 180 parcels across the city that featured over 4 acres of land and less than 10% impervious surfaces and identified “priority conservation land.”

The committee has identified 20 parcels it will recommend for conservation.

Soon, the committee expects to provide city council with a final report on that “priority conservation land.” Members will likely have a rough draft of their report prepared for their next meeting, Strong said – and they will have the report finished before February, when the second interim zoning extension ends.

“Dozens of residents have contributed hundreds of hours of their personal time to come up with how to identify the lands to conserve,” Greco said. “But unless the city puts in place some sort of mechanism to do that before interim zoning ends, then that time probably will have been wasted.”

Past Support and present thoughts

During the Nov. 6, 2018, election, resident Vince Bolduc and a group of his St. Michael’s College students – joined by some South Burlington High School students – surveyed voters on their priorities for the city. Their sample included 431 South Burlington voters. One question asked respondents if the city should increase, decrease or keep constant the 1 cent contribution to the Open Space fund. Forty-two percent of respondents said they supported increasing the contribution, 4% said the city should decrease it and 54% wanted the city to keep it the same. Of the 42% who supported an increase, 90% were in favor of increasing the contribution by 1 cent or more.

On Nov. 18, councilors seemed amenable to considering the proposal as a potential ballot item for the March election.

Councilor Thomas Chittenden said he supported the proposal as it used fair market value for land acquisition as opposed to land development regulation.

But fellow councilor Tim Barritt was concerned about putting forth such a proposal alongside other large asks, like the school district’s $209 million middle/high school and physical education building.

“This stuff accumulates and accumulates pretty quickly,” Barritt said. “Voters are being told one thing, but they don’t understand the debt load the way it progresses.”

Barritt said he understands the land trust members would say capital improvement program projects are precisely why the city should put forth a conservation proposal, but he urged caution.

Councilor David Kaufman said he too supported the proposal.

“I don’t think it’d be right, I don’t think it’d be ethical, just to take all the [interim zoning] work that’s been done and say, ‘well we’re not going to do anything about it we’ll see what happens in the future,’” Kaufman said. “We do have an awful lot of demands on money, but I think this is what everybody was moving us towards.”

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