Advice to forest districts: Buy more land
Thursday, May 11, 2006
Those who favor real estate purchases over other investments often buttress their recommendation with the old saw that land inevitably will increase in value because “they’re not making any more of it.”
Whether or not that’s sound advice for private investors, the caveat that “they’re not making any more of it” lies at the heart of a new report that strongly urges Chicago-area county forest preserve districts to make land acquisition their highest priority.
Excellent advice it is. The report, issued Wednesday, comes from the highly regarded Openlands Project, which from March 2004 through April of this year put a microscope to forest preserve districts in six counties, including Cook.
The report speaks in favorable terms of all the districts’ work, offering specific advice here and there for each. The report is candid, but not unduly harsh, in its assessment of serious financial and land management problems within the Cook County Forest Preserve District. But it also lauds recent changes as steps in the right direction and suggests that further progress can be made without forming a forest preserve board separate from the county board.
But the core message is that land acquisition must be each district’s priority. Suburban residents don’t really need an in-depth report to understand why this is so important. Publicly held open space plays a vital role in dampening the negative effects of uninterrupted development: traffic congestion, overcrowded and under-funded schools, pollution and flooding.
Openlands Project does not ignore, in its report, forest preserve or conservation district responsibilities beyond acquisition. The report cites, among other things, the need to develop and follow land management programs, to offer education programs to the public, to offer recreational opportunities that do not conflict with the district’s central mission of preservation.
The report acknowledges the importance of all these responsibilities; it just places acquisition at the top of the list. Cook County, of course, faces a special challenge here, considering that it is by far the most densely populated county in the region. Fortunately, it also has by far the largest amount of publicly held land — more than 68,000 acres. Still, the report urges the district to make every effort to increase its holdings to the statutory limit of 75,000 acres.
Because land is increasingly expensive, the report sagely advises district boards to aggressively seek grants for additional purchases. It advises districts, too, to seriously consider going back to voters, if necessary, for approval for new bond issues to buy land. As the report notes, these referendums have enjoyed much success, even in recent years. That’s not hard to explain. Most suburban residents instinctively understand the high value of open space and that when it comes to land, “they’re not making any more of it.”