Protection of open space has tangible economic benefits

By Michele S. Byers

New Jerseyans love preserved land. Over the past 60 years, voters overwhelmingly passed every statewide ballot question on funding to protect open space, farmland and historic sites.

This state we’re in may be the nation’s most densely populated, but we have worked hard to permanently preserve about a third of our total land mass for future generations.

But some may wonder if enough is enough. Is preserved land an economic drain on taxpayers? Does it cost too much? Can we afford it? And does open space really have monetary value?

The answers to these questions and more are laid out clearly in a Mercer County report that busts misconceptions and spotlights the oft-overlooked benefits of conserved lands.

The report echoes the findings of several previous studies on how preserving green space can save green … as in taxpayer dollars. One such groundbreaking report was “Valuing New Jersey’s Natural Capital,” issued in 2007 by the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Mercer County’s new report, “Return on Environment,” examines only lands in Mercer County, but its findings can be applied to all or most of New Jersey.

Mercer County is a microcosm of the state: it is diverse, with urban, suburban and rural landscapes, and residents of all ages, races and cultures. The county has about 39,000 acres of preserved land, or about 27% of its land mass.

“Protected open space provides substantial economic, environmental and health benefits to surrounding communities, but these benefits are often overlooked or undervalued in policy debates and investment decisions,” says the report.

A better understanding of these benefits shows that protected open space contributes to the county’s economic development and its fiscal stability.

Here are the report’s major findings:

• Environmental benefits – Protected open space in Mercer County provides huge environmental benefits for local communities, including replenishing water supplies, improving water quality, mitigating flooding during storms, protecting wildlife habitat and removing pollution from the air.

Combined, these nature-based ecosystem benefits would cost more than $97 million a year to replicate if lost. In addition, protected lands avoid $9 million and $102 million, respectively, in annual storm water system maintenance and pollutant removal costs. And the thousands of trees in Mercer County parks store carbon that would otherwise contribute to climate change, a service worth nearly $108 million.

• Recreation and health – Preserved open space provides low cost or free recreational opportunities to residents and promotes health and well-being.

The report estimates that residents who participate in recreational activities on county open space reap more than $47 million worth of benefits a year. This number represents the amount they would have to spend in the private market for the same activities they currently enjoy at little or no cost.

In addition, physically active people who use outdoor open spaces benefit with lower incidences of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, depression, certain cancers and obesity. It is estimated the physical activities on protected open space account for about $84 million in avoided medical costs annually, plus another $65 million in avoided losses from reduced productivity at work.

• Property values – The study found that protected open space increases the value of nearby homes, since buyers are willing to pay more for properties near and adjacent to green spaces.

The increased value of homes located up to a half-mile from open space averages about $7,100 a house. These higher home values generate increased property tax revenues for local governments and higher transfer taxes when the homes are sold.

• Economic activity – Preserved open space and farmland generate jobs and promote spending by visitors. It is estimated that $104 million in annual economic impact occurs on and because of protected open space in the county. This includes buying goods produced on preserved farmland, and ecotourism revenues from park visitors. Protected open space contributes an estimated 980 jobs to Mercer County, including maintenance workers, park administrators, rangers, farmers, guides and hospitality professionals.

“This report quantifies the economic benefits and supports the investments we have made in acquiring and caring for Mercer County open space parcels,” Mercer County Executive Brian M. Hughes said.

“Mercer County will continue to strategically acquire key parcels to expand on and improve our existing parks and open spaces, and increase our focus on stewardship – caring for the land to ensure its health and vitality – and continue to provide a range of activities for our residents,” Hughes said.

This sounds like a pretty good blueprint for any county in New Jersey to follow. And don’t forget that although the price of land in New Jersey is high, once the purchase price is paid the open space lands keep generating these economic benefits year after year into the future.

And as the recent climate summit in Glasgow highlighted, an investment in open space and a commitment to stopping and reversing deforestation around the globe is needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. And this work is happening right here in Mercer County.

Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills. She may be reached at info@njconservation.org