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A related memo to a N.C. General Assembly

legislative study committee

Raleigh News and Observer

Sunday, January 2, 2000

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Point of View: Investing in a practical conservation plan


     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 development.

     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 regulating government.

     Sound chaotic and unplanned? Let's see what would happen
     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 future.

     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 implemented.

     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 public need.

     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 own.

     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.




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