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Planning and Financing Open Space
and Resource Protection:
Greenprint for Pittsford's Future


John J. Behan, AICP
Consulting Planner to the Town of Pittsford
Behan Planning Associates
(518) 583-4335 - email: info@behanplanning.com

Farmlands, ecological resources, and other open spaces are important components defining the character of our communities. All too often, unfortunately, our community plans' mushy goal statements for resource protection are not backed up with the analysis needed to document the benefits of an aggressive, creative, and practical implementation of a resource protection program. Julius G. Fabos, FASLA, professor emeritus from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and mentor of the author has described the problem like this: A good plan is like a good apple, a good plan will be firm and crisp – not soft and mushy.

This Casebook article describes the planning and economic model that established the basis for Pittsford's Greenprint – a plan that protects 2,000 acres of valuable agricultural, ecological, and cultural resources in a fast-growing town. The human interest side of the Greenprint is also noteworthy in the community involvement process that involved town elected leaders, boards, and staff, residents, farmers, developers, historic preservation, farmland protection and open space advocates, public agencies, and a multi-disciplinary consulting team.

The Pittsford Experience: The Town of Pittsford, located in Monroe County, New York near the City of Rochester, was concerned with the loss of its agricultural and open space resources. Originally settled as an agricultural community with a village center located on the Erie Canal, Pittsford grew significantly after the Second World War as the Rochester metropolitan area expanded. Land development in Pittsford was consuming important agricultural landscapes, scenic vistas, and other natural and cultural resources. The community wanted to preserve the character of Pittsford. The town developed an updated comprehensive plan in 1995 to address these needs.

Visioning: Fortunately, prior to the initiation of the plan in 1995, the town conducted an intensive visioning process – Pittsford 2000". This work formed a consensus around the issues of concern to the community – with the character of Pittsford one of the five special topic areas of the work of the Pittsford 2000 Committee. The Pittsford 2000 process formed a mutual community understanding that:

  1. The working agricultural and natural landscape was a living testament to the history, scenic beauty, and natural resource wealth of the community.
  2. That these resources were part of the essential elements of the character of Pittsford which was significant to the quality of life in the community.
  3. Historic observation of development patterns in the town and greater region had taught that development pressures would consume this landscape if the town did not intervene to protect these resources.

This visioning work is significant to the planning process in that the broader community came to grips with the essence of the problem facing Pittsford. (Note: Community belief in the problem is a critical element. Planners sometimes forget to obtain a consensus on the problem.) Consensus building was continued through the comprehensive planning process. A strong leadership base, led by William A. Carpenter, Town Supervisor, was critical to formation of a community consensus. The local town board supported all of the planning initiatives. As well, the town benefited significantly from ongoing participation of several special interest groups, affected land owners, and the active involvement of the general public.

Fiscal Model: One element of ongoing debate in the community was whether the development which was occurring was "paying its own way" in terms of taxes to support the required community services. In 1993, the town commissioned the development of a model of the town's revenues and expenses associated with the existing and potential land use patterns in the community.

One noteworthy aspect of the fiscal impact model was its "dynamic" capacity to predict future tax rates based upon the costs and revenues associated with future land use patterns. (This contrasts with typical cost of community services studies which are "static" and can only estimate the cost of current land use patterns. The forecasting capability of the model became very important a few years later as an analytic tool for the comprehensive plan and Greenprint, discussed in more detail later in this article.) The fiscal impact model was prepared by the Center for Governmental Research, a nonprofit research foundation based in Rochester, under the direction of Kent E. Gardner, PhD. Some of the key findings of the fiscal impact analysis were:

  • That "growth and taxes were on a collision course," according to William A. Carpenter, Town Supervisor for the comprehensive plan and greenprint.
  • If the town did nothing, the typical household would pay increased taxes of several hundred dollars per year to support town growth.
  • That the "break-even" value of a new home was more than $300,000. (Break-even here is where the tax revenue gained from addition of a home equals the cost of community services attributable to a new home.)
  • That increased commercial development could decrease future tax increases.
  • That the "break-even" cost for the town to purchase the development rights on farms and other open space resources in the path of development was about $10,000 per acre ("break even" here is where the cost of financing a bond to purchase the development rights (PDR) for an acre is equal to the additional cost to the community would that acre be developed into residential use.)

The model's inputs included (among others) the following:

  • Acres of undeveloped land, including farms and open space
  • Acres of new residential (divided into 3 levels of value)
  • Acres of new commercial or light industrial land
  • Current town school district tax rates
  • Proportion of town and school district service costs by land use categories
  • Cost factors per acre of new development (number of new students, amount of new roads, etc.)
  • Revenue factors per acre of new development per land use category (real property taxes, state and federal aid, other sources)
  • Acres of land protected from development
  • Per acre cost of land protection (easement purchase price – bonded over 20 years)

The primary output of the model was an estimated future real property tax rate required to service the future growth of the town. Interestingly, the model demonstrated that it would be less expensive to implement the proposed land use plan rather than following the current zoning policies. The proposed plan included purchase of conservation easements on important farmland and open space resources coupled with a policy of creating several enhanced economic development sites for commercial and light industrial business expansion.

Resource Protection: After adoption of the plan, the town immediately initiated its implementation. The "resource protection" element, the "Greenprint for Pittsford's Future" is particularly interesting because it provided "crisp" answers to three key questions:

  • How much land should be protected?
  • How much will it cost, and what will it cost if we don't do something now?
  • What sites are priorities for protection?

To answer these questions, Pittsford's Greenprint initiative included three innovative components:

  • Establishment of a target of 2,000 acres of land to be permanently protected.
  • Utilization of the fiscal model of community revenues and expenses based upon land uses to
    determine costs and benefits of preservation and development.
  • Development of a rating system to score the relative importance of the resources present on
    each undeveloped site.

Property Rights: A commitment was made by the town to respect the equity in the land and to compensate owners if the town were to acquire development rights beyond the town's cluster development or incentive zoning code provisions.

Fiscal Model: The planning team used the model to analyze the amount and type of future development and preservation to test and refine the desired blend of commercial, residential, and protected land uses. We made an interesting finding; protection of open space, including purchase of development rights, would cost taxpayers less per year to support community services than full build-out of the town.

This finding did not mean that there should be no further development. It meant that a fiscal balance can be achieved through a strategy that promotes a variety of housing types, recognizes the need for the development of economic land uses, and preserves open space. Using the fiscal model as a planning tool, the targets for land preservation and development were tested, modified, and refined.

Greenprint for the Future: The "Greenprint" is an expression coined to describe a very specific action plan for resource protection. Pittsford's Greenprint protects more than 2,000 acres (about 2/3's of the remaining undeveloped land in the town) by:

  • Purchase of development rights (PDR) on 1,200 acres
  • Incentive zoning (transfer of development rights) on about 200 plus acres
  • Mandatory clustering protecting about 600 plus acres

Pittsford's PDR program is the community's investment in itself. The PDR program protects approximately 1,200 acres on seven farms. The average cost to a homeowner is estimated to be about $50 per year. (The fiscal model estimate is $250 per year of tax increases if the PDR program was not implemented! The savings from avoiding these tax costs total $5,000 for the average homeowner over the life of the PDR bond). The initial, one-time $50 tax increase will cover municipal bonds up to $9.9 million to purchase the development rights at an average price of $9,000 per acre. The property owners are committing their land to this future and are contributing to the community in a substantial way. The agreed-upon price represents a considerable "bargain sale" donation value by the property owners. The actual value of the development rights is $3.6 million more than the purchase price. (Since the financial analysis was done, the town has received $2.0 in state and federal farmland protection grants.)

greenspace graph Using the town's fiscal model demonstrated that this investment is balanced by the potential costs to taxpayers of the projected one thousand plus new homes which could be built on the property in question, were it to be developed.

The Greenprint ensures that important resources of the town are protected for future generations, preserves the natural and working landscape, and provides for well-planned, creative growth in a setting that balances preservation and development.

Lessons Learned:

  1. Show me the money. Show the landowner the financial benefits of participating in a PDR program. Show the taxpayer the cash savings of investing in land preservation. Show the development community the added value of these open space resources to the "stock" of the community. The Pittsford families that participated in the selling development rights were unified in their support for the community and their love of the land as they know it – open and undeveloped. They were each willing to give up a greater financial return for the opportunity to contribute something of lasting value – a legacy for the future. (For an "it's the people" look at Pittsford's Greenprint see Call to Action, Farmland Protection Success Stories in the Empire State, by American Farmland Trust, Northeast Field Office, 110 Spring Street, Saratoga Springs, NY, 12866.)
  2. Take risks. A specific resource protection plan is a risky – people may not like or agree with what are identified as valuable resources. But in the case of the Pittsford Greenprint, because the community members were actually involved in determining valuable resources, the community applauded and supported the initiative with their dollars.
  3. Wanted: Community leaders. Political leadership is critical to successful planning. A creative plan without the leadership to engage the public and shepherd the vision through the process will be one more plan for the shelf. Pittsford's Greenprint was a vision that was brought into reality with a committed leadership of the town supervisor and town board. Many others contributed to the Greenprint initiative including other volunteer board members, Historic Pittsford, and the Pittsford Greenbelt Association.
  4. Focus on the positive. Focus on the diversity of the resource base, the value to the community character, celebrate the beauty of a preservation of place using any tool you can – words, images, maps, and numbers. Give your program an image–a logo, a name, a media presence.
  5. Gain community trust (or at least avoid alienation!) Pay special attention to the property owners, the development community, and the special interest groups and respond to their concerns with meaningful adjustments to the plan.

Conclusions:

The "Greenprint" process used by Pittsford provides a useful model for application by other communities. The process of engaging the community in a dialogue about the future and the choices to be made was critical. Over 100 public meetings, workshops, and focus group sessions were held in the formation of the plan. Ultimately, a specific plan had to be formulated. Particularly important are the three questions that were given specific, measurable answers:

  • Establishing a target level of land to be protected
  • Determining the affordability of the proposed protection plan
  • Determining the resources of highest value for protection

This specificity is appreciated by community members – and local leaders can use it to measure the success of the plan's implementation. Perhaps the planning profession can continue to distinguish itself by helping communities craft plans that citizens can understand and "bite into, crisp and crunchy...like a good apple."

The author wishes to thank Town Supervisor William A. Carpenter for his guidance, leadership, and friendship, the members of the Pittsford Town Board, and the townspeople – in particular the agricultural community for their collective public spirit – a great example has been set for others to follow.


For more information on the Greenprint, click here.

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