Why Development Can Be More Expensive Than Conservation

Vicki J. Brown
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We know that protected lands provide important benefits, including clean water, farms, recreation, scenic vistas and wildlife. But does protecting land for conservation drive up local property taxes? The answer is “not necessarily,” according to several research studies. In fact, the opposite may be true: development can cost towns, and taxpayers, more over time due to an increased need for police, fire, schools and road maintenance services.

Studies have consistently shown that open spaces and working farmlands contribute more in taxes than they receive in municipal services. On the other hand, non-conserved residential lands require more in infrastructure and services – more schools, roads, maintenance, fire and police protection — than they pay in taxes, representing a net loss to local governments. Simply put, the tax revenue generated by new housing developments does not cover the increased costs of schools and town services for those new residents. This is something to keep in mind as we go into town meeting season.

Studies of the 11 New Hampshire communities compiled by American Farmland Trust found that open spaces and working farms and forests require on average only $0.56 in services for every $1 paid in taxes, while residential lands require an average of $1.12 in services. (Source: American Farmland Trust, Cost of Community Services Fact Sheet, Northampton, MA: Farmland Information Center, 2010.)

The national median across 151 communities and 25 years found that for every $1 paid in local taxes, working lands and open space require only $0.35 in services, while the average home requires $1.16 in services. (Source: New Hampshire’s ROI on Land Investment, by Trust for Public Land (TPL), 2014.)

An analysis of data from more than 1,400 New England towns from 1990 to 2015 concludes that the tax impacts of land conservation were small in most communities — a 1% increase in the percentage of town land protected was estimated to cause a 0.024% increase in the tax rate. This corresponds to an average increase in a homeowner’s annual tax bill of $1.92. In addition, the small impact did not persist—the study found no impacts beyond three years. (Source: Does Land Conservation Raise Property Taxes? Evidence from New England Cities and Towns, by researchers from Harvard University, Amherst College, and Highstead Foundation, published January 2022.) Further, permanent land protection can boost the value of nearby properties, potentially increasing other revenues.

Links to research studies about impact of conserved land on property taxes is available on the East Kingston Conservation Commission’s Protect It or Lose It webpage at https://www.eknh.org/conservation-commission/pages/protect-it-or-lose-it-land-conservation.

The bottom line? Land conservation saves New Hampshire communities money through avoided costs on expensive infrastructure and other municipal services required by residential property owners, such as schools, police, and fire protection.

Vicki J. Brown is a NH Natural Resources Steward, an East Kingston Conservation Commission member and co-founder of Pollinator Pathways NH.