New Canaan should formalize its existing open space protections to achieve preservation goals as well as to ensure the “perpetual existence” of beloved town assets, researchers said last week.
The town’s most effective financial strategy will be some combination of bonds for large projects and an Open Space Fund allocation for smaller projects and associated costs, according to two graduate students at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.
And the best way to leverage funds is for the town and nonprofit New Canaan Land Trust to work together, the students— Eve Boyce and Katie Panek—said during a Dec. 11 presentation at the New Canaan Nature Center.
Citing a state goal whereby 21 percent of acreage in Connecticut is protected as open space—the figure represents a target of combined local and state efforts—Boyce and Panek underscored the social, health-related and economic benefits of open space protection.
Due mostly to the costs of education, new residential development costs more in services than it nets in local taxes, draining municipal government budgets, they said.
“Studies have found a positive correlation between land values and protected open space for real estate,” Panek said during the presentation, delivered at a special meeting of the Conservation Commission attended by its members—Chairman Cam Hutchins, Secretary Sue Sweitzer, Linda Andros, Heather Lauver and Robin O’Connell—as well as several town officials, including First Selectman Kevin Moynihan, Town Council Chairman John Engel, Inland Wetlands Director Kathleen Holland, interim Town Planner Keisha Fink and Land Trust Executive Director Aaron Lefland and Board President Art Berry.
“The New Canaan Land Trust has found some evidence that land values do increase here near open space here in the town,” she continued. “It’s important to understand the way that open space tends to impact town finances. There is a general misconception that new residential development lowers tax rates while open space increases costs. But neither of those assumptions are really true. When new real estate development happens, that does mean that the total amount of property tax collected does go up so the town has a little bit more money to play around with—but more than 80 studies including some that have included Connecticut show that new development actually costs more in services than it brings in, in taxes.”
Their presentation included the unveiling of updated open space maps of New Canaan—see here. Hutchins said the commission and Land Trust helped secure funding from the Jeniam Foundation to underwrite the work.
“It is our hope that the map and related recommendations will be a springboard to better stewardship of our town’s open space going into the future,” Hutchins said. “It’s a win-win-win, and a very good thing for New Canaan.”
Directed by Lefland, the graduate students in work that counted toward course credit “researched, interviewed, mapped, strategized, questioned, analyzed, and synthesized,” Hutchins said. “A lot of good work.”
While New Canaan likely will not be able to achieve the overall goal of 21 percent open space—right now, the town very well could push its total protected open space from the current 6.9 percent to more than 12 percent, Boyce and Panek said. That’s doable, in part, because another 5.4 percent, or 776.6 acres in New Canaan, counts as “dedicated open space,” meaning they’re town- and National Historic Trust-owned lands that are not permanently protected but are expected to remain as open space (for example, our public parks)
In addition to those two categories, about 3.9 percent of New Canaan, or 565.7 acres, are privately owned, town, state or water utility lands that could be developed in the future (the figure doesn’t include open space on privately owned lots, such as backyards), the students said.
They identified 15 “highest priority” properties for acquisition that total 115.5 acres and an additional nine “high priority” parcels totaling 131.9 acres that are owned by the town but not zoned as open space. Eight more parcels are owned by the town and zoned as open space but not permanently protected, the Yale students said.
Boyce and Panek listed two “acquisition target” projects consisting of adjacent lands with shared conservation values—at Indian Waters Drive/Frogtown Road (23 acres) and Marvin Ridge Road (33 acres)—and a standalone property on Smith Ridge Road (21 acres).
Municipal funding strategies for open space include a Land Acquisition Fund such as the one New Canaan earlier this year created (though there’s no money in it yet, or agreed-upon strategy to funnel money there), designating a budget line item, imposing a new tax, open space bonds, tax abatement for conservation or taking a percentage of an existing seller conveyance tax.
Of the water utility-owned lands—545 total acres—218 are owned by Aquarion, while 154 are owned by the first taxing district of Norwalk, and 172 owned by the second taxing district, the students said. About 13.5 percent of those are under “imminent threat,” meaning they’re Class III areas, which is land outside the watershed and more than 150 feet from a reservoir or stream that feeds it.