The money would fund private conservation easements for working farmland, paying farmers to protect their land for future generations instead of selling out to developers. It would also buy land outright for new state parks, greenways and wildlife preserves.
The Land for Tomorrow Commission held a public hearing last week in Asheville, one of several held around the state to gather public input prior to the opening of this year’s General Assembly.
1: Strike one
Backers of Land for Tomorrow wanted to put the measure on the ballot in November — confident the public would vote yes to a $1 billion bond for land conservation. Despite broad support in the General Assembly to do so, Gov. Mike Easley allegedly nixed the bond idea, fearing where the state would come up with the $1 billion if the people approved it.
2: Another go
Instead, the state legislature created a Land for Tomorrow commission to study the idea. The commission’s main job was figuring out how the state could raise the money and the best way to go about preserving land. The commission has 16 members — Sen. John Snow, D-Murphy, and Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva, are on the commission.
3: Best way to conserve land
The Land for Tomorrow commission recommended funneling the $1 billion through existing state trusts, namely the Natural and Cultural Heritage Trust Fund, the Parks and Recreation Trust Fund, Clean Water Management Trust Fund, and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund. These agencies can do everything that needs to be done — saving working farms, building greenways or creating new state parks — they simply need more money to do it. Utilizing existing programs would decrease overhead expenses.
4: Finding the money
The commission developed a laundry list of options to pay for Land for Tomorrow.
• Regular old taxes: Take the money out of the state’s budget, garnered primarily from income and sales tax.
• Real estate tax: A 0.1 percent tax on all real estate transactions — or $1 per $1,000 of the sale price — would net roughly $60 million a year.
• Impact fees: There were 100,000 homes built in North Carolina in 2005. A $100 building permit fee for every house would raise $10 million per year.
• Tourist taxes: The top reason tourists visit is for natural beauty, so let them pay to preserve it. A 1 percent statewide tax on overnight lodging would generate $28 million annually. A food and beverage tax on 1 percent on meals eaten out at restaurants who generate $100 million.
• Water use fee: Charge for the use of water. People on town water systems currently don’t pay sales tax on water, while residential developments that draw water from wells are getting a free ride off the ground water table. A tax of 1 cent per 1,000 gallons of water would generate roughly $8.91 million per year currently.
5: Going to the mat
Many at a Land for Tomorrow public hearing last week liked the idea of the real estate tax to fund land conservation. While the real estate and development lobbyists are already gearing up to fight the idea, such a tax was imposed in Florida in 2000 and is raising $3 billion for conservation over 10 years and hasn’t slowed the real estate market there. The method was recommended as a reasonable one by the Land for Tomorrow commission. “The State loses 277 acres of natural or agricultural land a day to development. The Commission believes that a portion of the costs of conservation and preservation should be borne by those responsible for the changing environment,” the commission stated in its report.
Farmers overwhelmingly spoke out against the water tax. Farmers need water for irrigation, watering their cattle and trout farming. Taxing farmers to pay for a bill intended to save farming didn’t go over too well. It would also impact businesses like Blue Ridge Paper that borrow water from rivers to operate.
7: People want it
North Carolina isn’t the first state to talk about funding land conservation from public coffers. Just like paying for schools, roads and prisons, conservation is becoming part of what society wants its government to do. Since 2001, conservation measures have been on the ballot in 883 times in state and local elections — 74 percent of them passed. There have been 26 conservation votes on the ballot in various cities and counties in North Carolina, and 84 percent of them passed.