The researcher, Dr. Seong-Hoon Cho an agricultural economist at the University of Tennessee, believed that the price of farmland when sold to a developer does not reflect the actual value of that farm to the community. The community loses open space, scenic value, aesthetic value and a sense of place, Cho said.
“Those kind of values are not of a concern to those parties doing the transaction, so this non-market value is not considered. If this is left alone this will go on,” Cho said.
Cho wanted to quantify how much the public was willing to pay to preserve those intangible values.
“This kind of measurement, economists call it contingent valuation,” Cho said. “Basically, putting dollar signs on non-marketable goods.”
Cho chose Macon County as a case study due to rapid growth coming up from the Atlanta area just 90 minutes to the south and the lack of land-use planning or zoning to control that growth.
The survey was sent through the mail to a random sample of 1,100 households in Macon County. Cho received 287 answers.
The survey asked respondents whether they would be willing to pay more in property taxes to go into a fund for conservation easements in Macon County, and if so how much.
Tax dollars fund new roads, new sewer lines, new schools, new jails — all of which support development and growth — so why not fund conservation easements, which protect the community from growth, Cho surmised.
“I thought what would be the optimal way of finding the resolution for this issue,” said Cho. “This is sort of an indirect intervention. If nobody cares and doesn’t intervene, then the development will occur the way it is.”
Here are some of the more striking statistics:
• 3 percent said they would like to see more development.
• 64 percent said they were willing to pay more each year in property taxes to go toward a conservation easement fund.
• 52 percent of total respondents said they would pay $10 or more a year for the conservation fund, or 80 percent of those who were willing to pay.
• 41 percent of total respondents said they would pay $20 or more a year for the conservation fund, or 70 percent of those who were willing to pay.
These findings show that homeowners support public funding of conservation easements. Those in upper-income brackets and those who have moved to the area from elsewhere are more likely to support funding of conservation easements, according to the research.
Cho said if elected officials would only realize the public wants their tax dollars go toward conservation, the landscape could be saved before it is too late.
“After establishment of a fund, the rate of loss on resource land is expected to slow down to half of the current rate because Macon County will be able to offer an incentive for voluntary conservation,” Cho’s report stated. “If every household (in Macon County) were to pay $20 annually into the fund, this would allow the purchase of approximately 300 acres of easements per year at current prices.”