Open Space Referendum FAQ

Elk Township Open Space Referendum
Frequently Asked Questions

  1. What is the question that will appear on the November 7th ballot?
    Typical wording for the open space ballot question would be:  “Do you favor an additional Earned Income Tax at the rate of ½ of 1% by Elk Township to be used for financing the acquisition of open space; for the purpose of acquiring agricultural or conservation easements and for the purpose of acquiring recreation or historic lands?”
  2. Taxes are already too high – why should we pay even more?
    The Elk Cost of Community Services Study, (Brandywine Conservancy, 2006) shows that it costs more to develop land than to save it. This is due to increased service costs, which quickly exceed land protection costs. Refer to Question #8 for more information. Township residents on fixed incomes will not pay this tax.
  3. Do taxpayers ever vote to increase taxes?
    There is always concern about raising taxes. Referenda for land preservation have been approved in three other municipali    ties in the Oxford area alone, and many more beyond the Oxford region. Preserving farmland and protecting open space benefit the public, and as such, are accepted and understood purposes for this tax. There are financial benefits to preserving open space as well (refer to Question #8).
Examples of Open Space Referenda
and Voter Approval Rates
Municipality Ballot Date Referendum Amount¹ Approval Rate
East Brandywine, Chester County November 2000, 2002 0.125% EIT (each) 70%, 74%
Franklin, Chester County November 2002 0.5 mills 70%
Londonderry, Chester County November 2003 0.125% EIT 63%
Lower Oxford, Chester County November 2003 0.5% EIT 61%
Upper Oxford, Chester County November 2003 0.5% EIT 54%
East Nottingham, Chester County November 2004 0.5% EIT 50.2%
Highland, Chester County November 2004 0.5% EIT 62%
Chadds Ford, Delaware County May 2005 0.28 mills 72%
Growing Greener II – statewide May 2005 $3.8 million 60%
Kennett, Chester County May 2005 0.25% EIT 76%
Honey Brook, Chester County November 2005 0.5% EIT 51%

¹ “Referendum amount” refers to the dollar amount approved by voters for a bond issue or for an increase in earned income tax (EIT) or property tax; the latter is expressed as a property tax rate per $1,000 of property value (mill).

The public’s willingness to raise money through taxation for open space protection is not unique to eastern Pennsylvania. The Land Trust Alliance (a national land protection organization) publishes annual report cards on ballot measures. Between 1998 and 2002, voter approval rates exceeded 70% for ballot initiatives that fund land protection; in each of these years there were over 100 such ballot questions nationwide. More recently and in Pennsylvania alone, 10 of 13 ballot measures were successful in 2003, while eight of nine passed in 2004 and 13 of 17 were approved in 2005. These numbers represent a small percentage of the several hundred measures that were proposed across the nation and passed during the same time.

  1. In the typical ballot question, what does “purchase land or interests in land” mean?
    Property ownership can be described as a bundle of individual rights including rights pertaining to agriculture, surface and ground water, minerals, and development. “Purchase of land” could mean the outright purchase of the property with all the rights, or with respect to “interests in land,” the purchase of only specific rights such as the development rights.
  2. In the typical ballot question, what does “open space uses” mean?Open space uses are Elk’s farmlands, fields, greenways, woods, and stream valleys.
    Their permanent protection will support retention of the Township’s rural character and qualities, consistent with the results of the statistically-significant 2005 resident survey:  63% of respondents chose “rural atmosphere” as their overwhelming reason for living in Elk Township. A survey of Township residents in 1994 clearly showed similarly strong support for Elk’s rural character. Further, virtually all (98%) respondents to the 2005 survey value the Township’s open spaces, and almost the same percentage (92%) said these open spaces should be permanently protected.
    There are financial benefits to preserving open space as well (refer to Question #8).
  3. Will the open space levy go on forever?
    No. The Board of Supervisors can end the open space levy at any time with a simple majority vote. In addition, the Board can consider a “sunset provision” that would end the tax at the same time any debt incurred to protect open space is extinguished.
  4. What will prevent the open space revenue from being used for other purposes?
    Act 153 requires that the funds may not be used for any other purpose. Further, the funds will be accounted for in a separate, auditable “Open Space” account in the Township’s financial records.
  5. Does new development pay its own way through existing taxes?
    No. The results of the Elk Township “Cost of Community Services Study” indicate that residential land costs $1.04 in services such as schools (a major part of every taxpayer’s total tax bill) for every $1.00 in revenue it generates. Certain land uses can pay their own way – for example, age-restricted housing does not require as much in service expenditures since no children are sent to school, and commercial development cost less in services than the revenue they generate. Farmland pays its own way also, because only $0.04 in services are required to support agricultural land uses for every $1.00 in revenue it generates.
    However, retention of Elk’s rural character and protection of its open spaces are important to Township residents, and as such, there are certain lands (as shown on the Open Space Priorities Map, Question #10) that should be protected and not developed for even cost effective uses. Also, protected lands generate minimal service demands.
  6. Won’t this program remove land from the tax rolls?
    Typically no. Except for open space land that the Township might decide to buy outright and retain, land preserved through this program will remain in private ownership and thus stay on the tax rolls. For tax purposes, the value of the land will be reduced by the rights that are sold or donated. See answer to Question #14 for additional information.
  7. Exactly what is to be preserved and why?
    The Elk Open Space Committee has identified lands that could be protected; the current “Open Space Priorities” map is on file with the Township.  Overall, the Township’s farm fields, woodlands, wetlands, floodplains, steep slopes, serpentine barren lands, and trail corridors will be the focus of protection efforts. These resources are worthy of protection as they: are important to Elk’s history and rural character; provide habitat for numerous types of wildlife; and, allow for infiltration and supply of water drinking water wells.
    In sum, it is important to protect the Township’s remaining lands for their agricultural, ecological, scenic, and/or historic values; this will strengthen the fabric of the Elk community, enhance its rural character, and provide recreation opportunities on trails. Open space protection also avoids future increased service costs/taxes.
  8. Is there a formal process to determine what open spaces are preserved?
    In addition to the Open Space Priorities Map meeting requirements of Act 153, the Act also requires several official actions, including a public hearing and owner notification, prior to revenue expenditure.
  9. Isn’t the financial ability of a township too limited for land preservation?
    The relatively small amount of open space revenue can be used to establish a fund that will grow or could be dedicated to pay off a loan. This means funds are readily available to the Township to protect open space when the opportunity arises, and/or to meet the requirements for “matching funds” as established by county, state, and federal farm land and other open space protection programs.
  10. What is the opportunity for open space preservation?
    Elk totals 6,481 acres. Of this amount, there are about 1,240 acres, or about 18% of the Township, that could be preserved; i.e., currently unprotected and largely undeveloped parcels of land that comprise extensive prime agricultural soils supporting the Township’s farming families, and serpentine barren lands, important for the unique flora and fauna, as well as wildlife habitat. Already protected land totals 928 acres, or 14%, creating a core of natural areas that can be enhanced by protection of unprotected lands and furthering the Township’s vision of preserving its rural character. Also and as Elk continues its trail planning efforts, open space revenue could be used to protect important trail corridors.
  11. Why should the Township become a large landowner? If it doesn’t, how is land protected?
    The Township prefers not to buy and retain land; in fact, Act 153 includes provisions that limit its ability to do so. The Township will use open space revenue principally to protect lands by purchasing conservation easements that prohibit or limit development. A conservation easement is a legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust or government agency that permanently limits uses of the land in order to protect its conservation values. It allows the landowner to continue to use the land, and to sell it or pass it on to heirs subject to the restrictions in the conservation easement. The land trust or government agency that “holds” the easement is responsible for making sure the easement’s terms are followed.
    The value of a conservation easement is determined by the land’s development rights. As an example, a potential open space parcel is analyzed to determine how many houses could be placed on the parcel; this number of houses equals the number of development rights. Through a conservation easement, these development rights are severed from the parcel and the landowner is compensated for the loss of that development value (or he/she donates part of the development value and obtains an income tax deduction for the value of the donated rights). The remaining rights to the land, such as the right to farm or pump water, are retained by the landowner.
  12. Will land preservation purchases stop development?
    That would be an unrealistic goal. There’s too much land and too little money. Land purchase and easement donation have already helped preserve some of the important parts of our community, but more resources are needed to continue the efforts. Growth may be inevitable, but sprawl is not.
  13. Why is the open space referendum needed? Aren’t our zoning ordinances protective enough?
    The Open Space Priorities Map identifies open lands that contain critical resources that should not be broken up by development. While our zoning is protective, these resources would still be impacted if development occurs in their vicinity. Also, zoning can be changed any time by the Board of Supervisors.
  14. I’ve worked hard to build a nest egg and hope to leave some to my children. What incentive do I have to consider open space protection when there may be no current or future benefit?
    A landowner can realize benefits now by: selling land outright for open space protection; selling an easement; donating an easement; or, some combination thereof. Payments can be deferred and there could be future estate tax benefits as well. Many families also realize a non-financial benefit – the legacy of open land staying that way in perpetuity. Should a landowner retain building lots for his/her children and protect the remainder of a large parcel, the value of those lots will increase due to the adjacent protected land.
  15. Will there be public access to properties preserved with open space revenue? If not, why should we pay?
    When development rights are purchased or otherwise removed from the land by the Township, the land stays in private ownership; negotiation between the Township and landowner will determine if and how much public access will be available through the conservation easement. The Township is currently undergoing an extensive trails planning effort to identify important corridors that could be protected with open space revenue.

November 7, 2006