Commentary

printed 06/07/2019

Worcester County Commissioner Ted Elder has a point, when he argues that something’s not right about using tax dollars to buy conservation easements from private property owners.

It’s a little irritating when hundreds of thousands of dollars in state tax revenue is being used to enrich someone or some company for doing nothing more than agreeing to leave a piece of land in its current state.

People wonder, as Elder does, whether the owner of a tract of land ever had any intention of developing the property. Could it be, one might wonder, that the owner is just cashing in on the state’s Rural Legacy Program bank account because it’s there, or is the owner actually teetering between subdividing the fields and building houses because he, she or it needs the money?

That’s a tough question to answer, which gives rise to the doubts expressed by opponents of the program.

Still, from a politically conservative point of view, philosophically speaking, it remains that if government wants open land off the market, the right thing to do is to pay for it, rather than take the other available approach of regulating away a property owner’s rights.

That’s not as far-fetched as it might seem and it has already occurred in other instances, where major developments in open areas face an increasing number of restrictions because, apparently, the voters who put officials in office want it that way.

It might not go down easy to see property and income tax revenue being used in this fashion, but if open space and agricultural land is worth saving — and make no mistake, we feel that it is — the fairest way to do that is by paying the landowner to do exactly that in perpetuity.

It’s not cheap, but then again, the value of property is based on its highest and best use. In the case of the Rural Legacy Program, the price tag is based on the land’s highest use, so the best use can be preserved.

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