N.C. needs to preserve undeveloped open space

Two trends ought to grab North Carolinians' attention. Farmland and undeveloped open space are rapidly disappearing in this state - at a 110,000-acre-per-year clip. And a nine-year-old legislative commitment to preserve a million acres of land for conservation and recreation purposes is falling far short of its goal.

Those realities should prompt legislators to provide more incentives to property owners to preserve their land rather than develop it.

In fact, someone already has come up with a good way to do that. Last year, the N.C. House passed a bill pending in the Senate to give conservation-minded landowners a property tax break like those granted to owners who manage their land for agriculture, forestry or horticulture.

House Bill 1889 would extend the same kind of property tax credit to farmers and landowners who choose to manage their land for wildlife habitat or conservation purposes. Without this legislation, those property owners would continue to pay higher property taxes – a disincentive to owners who want to manage land for these conservation purposes. It discourages preservation of green space at a time when land is being rapidly consumed.

The bill would protect a county's tax base by limiting enrollment in the program, requiring approved management plans and making landowners who leave the program pay five years of back taxes.

Preserving these family forests, as advocates call them, makes sense in a state woefully susceptible to air pollution. Maintaining trees on private lands helps absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen, which is particularly beneficial in densely populated areas such as Mecklenburg and Wake counties. Environmentalists say those counties have lost more than a third of their forest lands since 1990. These lands will stay in private hands and be managed for beneficial purposes. This is a good way to preserve our natural environment without a huge expenditure of public money. The Senate should act without delay.