On Thursday October 31st, 2019 the PA Highlands Coalition hosted “Match Funding: Open Space Referendums and other local tools to support Land Conservation” during a one-hour webinar.
Representatives from Pennsylvania land trusts, counties, townships, environmental advisory councils, and conservation nonprofit organizations tuned in to hear about how local governments can raise funds through a voter-approved open space referendum. Before the municipality levies a tax on real estate or earned income, officials must include an authorizing measure on the ballot for constituents to consider. If approved, the levied tax is collected and placed into an open space fund. PA Act 153, the Open Space Lands, Acquisition and Preservation Act provides power to municipalities to purchase land or easements for conservation. Before any of the open space tax revenue is spent the city, township, or borough must develop a plan to protect the resources.
Owen Franklin, Pennsylvania State Director at The Trust for Public Land shared key trends in land conservation and reminded participants that, “land conservation is not a partisan issue.” Using data collected during the most recent presidential election in 2016, Franklin relayed that in Pennsylvania 21 counties offered measures to authorize land conservation and open space fund generation from taxes. 76%, or 16 of those measures passed. In Pennsylvania counties where the majority of constituents cast their vote for the Democratic candidate Hilary Clinton, 75% of the open space measures passed. Similarly, in the Pennsylvania counties where the majority cast their vote for the Republican candidate, now President Donald Trump, 80% of the ballot measures passed. Franklin also highlighted the importance of local funding, citing that local funding has supplied 46% of public funding for land conservation across the US from 1988-2015. State funding represented 32% of the total and federal funding represented 22% over this time period.
Lori Stauffer, Township Manager at Lower Nazareth Township in Northampton County, Pennsylvania shared how the municipality experienced recent success passing a ballot measure to levy a 0.25% additional Earned Income Tax (EIT) to be used to finance open space acquisition and conservation easement purchases. Stauffer explained the importance of holding public education sessions about the proposed ballot measure, stating that they should be held close to election day. This strategy ensures that the information is fresh in voter’s mind on election day. She also highlighted the need for partnership. Lower Nazareth Township worked with Wildlands Conservancy land trust and several other partners throughout the entire process.
The Trust for Public Land reminds stakeholders that the organization can assist municipalities with the open space referendum process. Specifically, TPL has support from the William Penn Foundation to support three “cluster” communities in the Delaware River Watershed no-cost assistance in developing a ballot measure to support land conservation.