Beginning with Habitat


Open Space Planning

1. Why Plan for Open Space | 2. Importance of Being Pro-Active | 3. What is an Open Space Plan | 4. Open Space Planning Process | 5. Components of an Open Space Plan | 6. Using BwH in Open Space Plan Inventories | 7. Designating Local Focus Areas | 8. Commonly Raised Public Concerns | 9. Example Plans

Commonly Raised Public Concerns

Black Bear

1. Taking land off the tax roles cannot be good for my community

The operating budgets of Maine towns depend on collecting taxes based on property values. The purchase of land for open space results in no taxes being collected on that property, or a reduction in what could be collected if the property was developed. If a town buys land for open space, the parcel purchase price, property management costs, and loss of property taxes become the shared burden of town residents. In recent times a proposed increase in taxes is closely scrutinized at best, if not vehemently opposed by those Mainers already struggling to keep up with their present tax bills. Study after study, however, demonstrates that when the fiscal implications are examined, although the initial land purchase results in a short-term increase in local taxes, open space (especially passive conservation land) soon pays for itself through the increased prices residents are willing to pay for nearby lots resulting in higher tax revenues than would otherwise be expected. Furthermore, when the conserved lands are strategically located through open space planning, they have the effect of eliminating future infrastructure needs and costs of services associated with the alternative of additional rural residential development.

Properly examining the economic implications of conservation land requires an analysis of several components of economic value and their associated public financial impacts. The following framework was developed by Paul Anton of Wilder Research in his report: The Economic Value of Open Space, Implications for Land Use Decisions (2005). It provides a fairly simple approach to analyzing the broader implications of conservation decisions. Although dollar figures used in this analysis are at best estimates based on fairly broad assumptions, the analysis provides a valid methodology for responding to public concerns should they arise.

Table 2. Examining the economics of conserved land.

Preservation of Conservation Land
(-) one time cost and (+) savings
(-) annual cost and (+) savings
Addition to nearby property values   (+) increased tax revenue
Avoided costs of alternative development (+) avoided public infrastructure costs (-) lost property taxes from avoided development
    (+) avoided cost of providing public services, infrastructure maintenance, etc.
Recreational amenities (-) cost of improvements (-) operation and maintenance costs
Other factors to consider:    
Water quality protection (both surface and ground water)    
Wildlife habitat and production    
Scenic value    
Value to non-abutting users (recreation)    
Value for economic development ( both for attracting businesses and tourists )    
Totals Total one-time capital cost (-) or capital investment savings (+) Total annual cost (-) or savings (+)


Estimating the addition to the value of nearby property (top row) is best approached with the assistance of a local assessor, but results of national research and findings from Maine provide good rules of thumb. This estimation can be conducted by:

  1. Counting the number of houses that exist or the number of units that could potentially be built within 500 feet of the proposed conservation land;
  2. Total or project the likely value of those housing units;
  3. Apply an appropriate premium to the total market value of those units (research indicates a 3-15% increase in home values between 500 and 1000 feet from protected passive use conservation lands). Wilder research suggests 7% as a conservative figure.
  4. Finally, apply the appropriate tax rate for the jurisdiction being analyzed.

Similarly, estimated avoided public infrastructure costs and costs of providing public services require that several factors be considered. These factors include:

  1. If the subject parcel would alternatively be used for residential development, how many units would it support and how many residents would that translate to based on current per household census figures?
  2. What would the public roadway impacts be? This includes maintenance of new roads, increased wear and tear on existing roads from new vehicle trips to and from the potential development. Costs can be estimated using your town's budget figures for road maintenance.
  3. What increases in public safety spending would be necessary? This includes police, fire, and emergency medical service and estimates should consider whether the site is in an existing patrol zone, likely response times, and need for new personnel, or capital expenditures might be necessary.
  4. What increases in general government services might be necessary? These services include inspections, registrations, trash collection and solid waste disposal, etc.
  5. What increases in school costs would be necessary? How many new pupils would a development likely contribute? Would a development require longer bussing routes? What types of homes could be expected and how would these affect state aid?
  6. Are there implications at the county level?

2. How much open space is enough?

Whether it's at a town meeting vote to consider the acquisition of a single parcel, or during public forum seeking input on an open space plan, the question of "how much open space do we need?" always comes up. The lack of a specific answer, number, or quantifiable set of measures, is often received as vague and frustrating to proposal critics or those wrestling with tight town budget decisions. So how can this concern be addressed?

When it comes to active recreation fields and parks that serve a measurable public need, organizations like the National Recreation and Parks Association have estimated that 10-acres of fields are necessary to serve 1,000 residents. What about wildlife habitat? It is hard to assign metrics or develop strategies to monitor success especially if the plan incorporates a broad goal such as maintaining local species diversity. It is therefore important to take a comprehensive look at what habitat opportunities exist within your town's borders and prioritize to arrive at an easily conveyed vision. This vision, although not a hard and fast acreage figure, should be specific enough to highlight an interconnected network of habitats across the landscape. The vision should also be refined enough to demonstrate that adequate land to accommodate expected growth has been incorporated into the plan. BwH is a good tool to begin this planning process. What are the truly key areas to conserve? What areas are best suited to accommodating growth demands? Where can remaining undeveloped blocks be linked to accommodate long-term species needs and support recreational trail connections? Which blocks harbor unique species occurrences and specialized habitats? What areas are less significant, but could be protected in part through well-conceived open space development or performance standards that preserve key ecological functions?

The best way to answer the "how much open space" question when it comes to resources that do not have commonly considered market value is to be able to point to clearly articulated goals and objectives in a publicly vetted and accepted open space plan that result in an easy to comprehend vision for your town's future. These goals can be incorporated by drawing lines on a map that represent an interconnected network of local focus areas with a written goal of "maintaining habitat integrity and connectivity within this green belt". Exact acreage figures and specific parcels certainly do not need to be identified up front in the open space plan, but the plan needs to be written with enough specificity that any future conservation proposals tie directly to achieving predefined, and publicly accepted, plan goals and objectives.

A common pitfall experienced by communities that do not have a mapped network of priority conservation areas to point to, or do not have specific goals written, is that they are faced with acquisition decisions at every turn and in every corner of the community. Patches of green space commanding premium prices are protected ad-hoc throughout town. This habit can unintentionally push development further into areas of town where it is was not expected or cannot be efficiently supported. Conservation proposals that cannot be tied to plan goals or vision, may not be appropriate for public funding, but rather be determined by free market forces. Often these projects are initiated by private interest groups and often their fate is best determined with the availability of private funds.

3. Does open space impact affordability?

A frequent concern related to land conservation is that it will increase the surrounding land values and prohibit affordable housing. Certainly, conserved lands have the effect of increasing adjacent land values, but does this effect really limit the potential for affordable housing? Similar to wildlife habitat protection, there are not many incentives in the free market to build affordable housing without some kind of government involvement. Towns that do not have open space plans, or are not actively buying land for conservation have the same challenges in providing truly affordable housing. Most significant conservation lands typically occur outside of growth areas in more rural sections of a community. These rural areas are generally not the best locations for affordable housing anyway despite the fact that the land is typically cheap. Affordable housing is best situated in areas where residents would have the fewest expenses while occupying it. For most towns, this means areas within growth zones, close to infrastructure, and within walking distance to services. After conducting research in 28 metropolitan areas around the country, the Center for Housing Policy concluded that once your one-way commute exceeds approximately 12 miles, transportation costs including fuel, wear and tear, and insurance outweigh any benefit of owning cheaper to buy rural housing. Just like open space, truly affordable housing needs to be actively encouraged through regulatory and incentive based mechanisms if it is to happen in your community.

4. Management vs. hands-off approaches

Who is going to manage open space land in your town? How is it going to be managed? How will restrictions be enforced? It is important to be able to answer these questions when asked by town residents. For the most part, many conservation lands require little or no active management depending on their history of past use. Oftentimes if a forest stand has been managed for timber in the past, it may require some initial treatment to bring it to a state where nature can take over. Typically this involves thinning especially if the stand is even-aged upon acquisition. Other properties may require regular mowing or burning to maintain open field or early successional conditions. Impounded ponds come with their own set of maintenance issues. Each acquisition should have some kind of management needs assessment prior to purchase in order to fully evaluate costs of ownership. Improved access amenities such as trails should also be carefully considered for their cost implications both for initial creation and annual maintenance. Proper placement of trails and their design are critical in minimizing initial construction costs, and future maintenance needs. The Maine Conservation Corps provides top notch affordable trail planning and construction services ( The Maine Forest Service ( offers services to communities to assist in the management of conservation lands through their Woods Wise and Project Canopy programs.

5. Providing public access vs. preservation of sensitive habitat

Public support for open space conservation is greater when the public has access to and recreational benefit from the conserved lands. Promoting use of local conservation lands especially by children and families, helps to foster awareness of and appreciation for Maine's natural resources. Often times, however, there is local concern that providing public access may impact the ecological values intended to be preserved through the land's acquisition. Despite the fact that there are many sensitive natural communities and wildlife habitats in Maine, there are few scenarios under which public access needs to be permanently prohibited. Seasonal restrictions may be appropriate for sensitive nesting areas or deer wintering areas. Well-designed and placed trails are key in preventing erosion and foot traffic that could impact streams, wetlands, and sensitive plant habitat. A well-developed management plan will allow your committee to find a balance between encouraging public use and protecting key features. Both the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and the Maine Natural Areas Program are available for consultation during management plan development.

6. The "Takings Issue"

From the Maine State Planning Office's: Comprehensive Planning: A Manual for Maine Communities 2005

The "taking issue" refers to the legal question of whether governmental regulation has gone so far as to have effectively "taken" private property, requiring compensation to the property owner. It is a shorthand reference to the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution's prohibition: "nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation." Taking is a complex legal issue. The courts have never offered a formula for determining when a "taking" has occurred. Reviews are made case-by-case. But there are several tests:

  • What is the economic impact of the regulation on the property owner?
  • Has the owner been left with a reasonable economic use? It doesn't have to be "highest and best" use or the use the owner hoped for. It merely has to be "reasonable" use.
  • Does the regulation promote a valid police power objective? The "police power" is the power of government to regulate to protect the public health, safety, and welfare. Courts try to balance the public welfare against the diminished value of private property that may result from regulations. Where regulations prevent a public harm-for example, by protecting environmentally sensitive lands-this test is easier to meet. Where regulations create a public benefit-for example, a park-that did not previously exist, it is difficult to meet.
  • What is the character of the governmental action? If the regulation requires a landowner to conserve open space to prevent a public hazard, such as flooding, it is easy to defend. If the action in effect reserves private land for a uniquely public function-for example, for a utility line or a park-or allows public "invasion" of the property, as in the case of points of public access, it is likely a taking.

Within this framework, zoning to preserve open space can be the subject of argument. In 1980 the U.S. Supreme Court held that an ordinance discouraging premature development of open space advanced a legitimate governmental goal. (Agins v. City of Tiburon, 447 U.S. 225) Subsequent cases have warned that there must be a direct connection between the regulation and the harm that the regulation is trying to prevent; and against regulation that, while guarding against a legitimate concern, such as flooding, also requires a land owner to allow public access.

Next: Example Plans

Back to top of page