Land Preservation Still Matters in Montgomery County
Two large properties are for sale in my neighborhood. Together, they represent about 250 acres. The development of either or both has the potential to radically change our community.
My neighbors are worried—they have grown used to the lovely vistas of fields and forests they can see from the upstairs windows or from the backyard; the wildlife that threatens their gardens but is nonetheless a part of our natural habitat; and the trails around the edges where we can walk dogs, pick wildflowers or scrounge for pinecones for wintry decorating. Neighbors a mile or so downstream are oblivious to the beneficial effects of these open fields and the forests for storm water management and air quality, but they benefit, too, whether they know it or not.
No one blames the landowners—they raised their families here, they kept the land open, and now a big house and a farm are just too much to take care of alone. The neighbors pause along the trail, or in the supermarket, or after church, to ask, “Have you heard? It’s for sale! What will happen next? Who will buy the land? What will be built there?”
They know every piece of land is zoned for something and every landowner has a right to develop in accordance with the zoning. They understand that the house and the land are the landowners’ retirement accounts, and do not begrudge their neighbors’ asking prices. Still they worry.
They are not unlike those Americans surveyed by the National Association for Realtors (NAR) last summer, while the recession depressed housing, development and real estate in general, and “suburban sprawl” was no longer a topic of discussion at local government meetings.
According to the NAR magazine, “Nevertheless, a strong anti-sprawl sentiment emerged when people were asked to prioritize a list of housing and community issues facing their state governments. Preserving farms and open spaces was the number one issue with 53% of the people saying it was a high or extremely high priority. Creating new developments was dead last at 24%.”
This is not to say, of course, that development itself is a bad thing—that’s how my neighborhood got built, of course, and it could not exist without nearby shopping and commercial business locations and employment opportunities. Instead, what it indicates is that every well-developed community has a variety of factors that include housing developments, commercial, industrial and office development that offer employment opportunities (and also function as a varied and stable tax base to fund the schools), but also some open spaces, natural areas, trails and recreation spaces. Lucky communities still host a farm or two for nearby local produce. As the survey pointed out, people value communities that have all of these things, and they include farms, parks, trails and open spaces as a priority.
In America, open land is part of our DNA. We have a gut reaction to it, quite apart from its value to the community for many tangible reasons. In Winter, open land provides natural areas for “stopping by the woods on a snowy evening,” like Robert Frost; in the Spring, its ability to let the rain fall gently and infiltrate the fields helps manage storm water; in the Summer, the land provides a place for the crack of a bat to herald the Little League season, or to grow corn and fresh vegetables; and in the Fall, the harvest includes hay rides, soccer games, and a free fall foliage show to delight the senses.
So of course my neighbors are worried. But they needn’t be. Luckily for us, both of these families, generously working with local land trusts, conservancies and watershed associations, as well as supportive county and state government programs, made the decision to preserve the land in its open and natural state “in perpetuity” several years ago. Under the watchful eyes of the conservancies, the houses and part of the land will be sold, but not developed. Ever.
Open space programs can be viewed as a “frill” in hard times like the ones we are experiencing now. Land trusts can be viewed as less deserving of private and foundation support than other charitable organizations. And yet, the work of preserving the land that should be saved continues. Properties come on the market for all sorts of reasons, and we need to be ready to preserve the land that should be kept open, and to make sure the promises of the conservation or farmland preservation easements are kept by new owners. Our communities need these open lands, and they are counting on us. If land trusts and conservation organizations did not exist, much of what we value in our communities would be irrevocably lost.
State Rep. Kate Harper, R-61st, Montgomery, chairs the Board of Directors of the Montgomery County Lands Trust, a nationally accredited 501 (c)(3) nonprofit conservancy that works every day to preserve the land that should be saved in Montgomery County.