of View: Investing in a practical conservation plan
By GEORGE HOWARD
MORRISVILLE -- What
if, early in this new century, every acre of land cleared and graded for
new development in Wake County were compensated -- acre for acre -- with
protected natural areas elsewhere in the county?
Over time, tracts of conservation land equal to
the acreage being lost would emerge to constrain and compensate for
growth. Instead of wringing our hands over the next 100 acres of
superstore, we could rest easier knowing that 100 acres had been
permanently set aside.
Just dreaming? Not at all. Already, across
North Carolina and the nation, so-called "mitigation banks"
have emerged in response to the demand that society balance the need to
develop, and restore, certain specific environmental resources. These
"banks" of property, many over a thousand acres, are restored
to their natural condition -- typically wetlands -- and allowed to sell
transferable, government-regulated "credits" to offset
As a "land banker" I have watched as
additional areas are banked for new and different resources. The
red-cockaded woodpecker, stream reconstruction, riparian buffers and
wetlands are all bought, restored in quantity and "banked" in
North Carolina. I believe it is inevitable that similar systems will be
applied to the most fundamental resource of all: living space itself,
acre for acre.
The key to maximizing the benefit and
affordability of such a system is to allow the private sector complete
freedom to locate and provide the conservation. Unlike ham-handed
command-and-control "greenbelts" and the like, the mandate
would simply be to purchase and conserve acreage equal to that lost,
anywhere the developer chooses, within the jurisdiction of the
Sound chaotic and unplanned? Let's see what
If you were responsible for providing 35 acres
of "green credit" to get approval for a new development, you
would surely seek to purchase the cheapest dirt around. As it happens,
the cheapest dirt is also the wettest and most ecologically valuable.
This means the first areas to go into our "county banks" of
compensatory property would be wetlands -- already at the top of our
list of protection priorities.
No one will be more pleased with this system
than a rural landowner with "worthless" wetlands and
floodplain. Now he has a hungry market of developers seeking his least
valuable tracts. He can sell, or protect the resource as an asset for
The conservationist, on the other hand, could
hardly be happier. Sensitive properties that once relied on the
capriciousness of regulation for protection would now be purchased and
conserved fee-simple for eternity.
It doesn't stop there. Further efficiencies
would quickly come as environmental bankers entered the new market for
green space. Companies like mine would purchase ecologically attractive
areas "up-front," in large tracts, to provide economies of
scale in purchasing and permitting.
As with wetlands, our industry would approach
regulators, before development occurred, to approve our tracts as
"credits." We would then endow the property for land
management and taxes, and free the builder of the expense and delay in
identifying and endowing his own compensation for each project.
Sound expensive? Let's do some math. A typical
buildable acre in Wake County goes for about $35,000. A typical wetland
acre sells for no more than $1,000 in quantity. The average builder
would then be internalizing an additional 3 percent of his land cost for
"compensatory credit" to gain approval for his project.
I predict this method would prove cheaper than
other regulatory schemes. If the counties draw "green lines"
around what is buildable, or protected, somebody is going to pay big
time. With this system, you are just as likely to own compensatory land
as developable land, since both would be needed in equal measure.
What I have described thus far is the
"beta" version of what would come thereafter. A whole variety
of more sophisticated trades could be allowed after the initial
"acre for acre, anywhere you want" county banks are
For instance, if such a system were in place
after Hurricane Floyd, the political judgment might have been made to
allow the conservation of floodplain anywhere lower in the Neuse Basin
as appropriate compensation. At other times politicians may increase, or
reduce, the number of compensatory acres required to suit the perceived
Or what if the system were phased in at a ratio
of 10 development acres to 1 acre of conservation? That might be
economically and politically acceptable, and certainly better than the
nothing we get today.
Wake County would surely need to consider that
only commercial building and larger neighborhoods need compensatory
credit, in order to spare the little guy, clearing his own lot for his
own use, from having to purchase credits.
The important thing is that we would finally
have a "system" to manage growth -- producing tangible
results. The system would be comprehensive, understandable and in
essence self-regulating. Economic realities, not bureaucrats, would
define the boundaries of the emergent green islands. We could expect the
most rural portions of the county to steadily fill with conservation,
just as we desire, but not at the direction or cost of the
"planner" and his arbitrary pen.
I doubt I am alone in my frustration with the
repeated mantra of "smart growth" with not a whiff of
substance. Politicians off all stripes have seized that concept without
first formulating specifics.
When rural land banks do someday emerge from
the years of talk, we will dearly regret each day we sought "the
perfect" policy at the expense of "the good." Let's move
forward to quickly grow our natural environment, in lock-step with our
George Howard is a former aide to U.S. Sens.
Jesse Helms and Lauch Faircloth in Washington. He is a founder and
partner in Restoration Systems, L.L.C, in Morrisville.