On Nov. 7, Ohio voters will consider a constitutional amendment intended to pay for land conservation and the reclamation of polluted industrial sites.
State Issue 1 would give lawmakers the power to issue up to $50 million of general obligation bonds each year for land conservation and preservation and an additional $50 million of special revenue bonds each year for the revitalization of polluted land. The total amount of bonds outstanding at any time could not exceed $200 million for each of these initiatives.
Funding for land conservation in Ohio has become increasingly important as sprawl, the outward growth of cities to low-density areas, consumes the state's farmland and open spaces. From 1990 to 1996, Cincinnati's population increased by only two percent, but the city's land area grew by 12 percent. Akron spread out dramatically during the same period, consuming 65 percent more land in 1996 than it did in 1990, even though the city's population grew by only 3.5 percent. And the number of people per square mile fell 24 percent in Cleveland and 44 percent in Dayton, even though the population of both cities remained relatively stable.
Rapid movement of populations from established, service-rich areas to far-flung subdivisions has not only consumed millions of acres of farmland and open spaces, but has also bred traffic congestion and lower air quality.
From 1984 to 1994, the amount of time Cincinnati drivers spent stuck in traffic increased 200 percent, while Cleveland's sprawl has led to a 260 percent increase in average commuting time. In 1998, Ohio lawmakers recognized these problems and passed the Farmland Preservation Act, giving state and local governments the power to purchase development rights to farmland threatened by sprawl.
The resulting Farmland Preservation Fund, however, has since received scant funding by state legislators. State Issue 1 could fuel this program and provide financing for conservation-based land acquisition throughout the state.
But some question whether Issue 1 provides enough funding to make even a slight impact. In drafting the argument against Issue 1, State Sen. Lynn R. Wachtmann, R-Maumee, and State Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Norwalk, estimate that $200 million will save less than one percent of Ohio's farmland. Furthermore, the total cost of conserving this small amount of land would exceed $300 million due to interest on the proposed bonds.
Glen Brand, Conservation Organizer with the Sierra Club's Cincinnati office, agrees that the debt limits imposed by Issue 1 are too low.
"It really is a baby step," Brand says. "But we are very encouraged to see that Governor Taft is doing something."
Brand believes Ohio lawmakers could learn a lesson from New Jersey, where Gov. Christine Todd Whitman set a goal to preserve one million acres of the state's farmland and open space. Voters supported this goal by approving a land-conservation bond issue that will provide $98 million annually.
Brand also believes Issue 1, by providing public money for the cleanup of land contaminated by industrial and commercial pollution — known as brownfields — could weaken Ohio's already anemic prosecution of polluters.
"The public benefits greatly from brownfield cleanup, so we are not opposed to using public funds to do that," Brand says. "But we think that polluters should also be held accountable, whenever possible, for the problems they cause."
Brand's group, along with several other environmental organizations, is also concerned the cleanliness and public-disclosure standards established by the state's controversial voluntary cleanup program will apply to brownfield cleanups funded by Issue 1.
"The Voluntary Action Program uses a standard of 'clean enough," Brand says. "We think that unless these places are thoroughly cleaned, there will be problems in the future."
Additionally, the voluntary program allows those who clean and develop contaminated lands to do so without revealing to the public the methods or results of the reclamation.
Lawmakers could have and should have structured a brownfield cleanup program that punishes polluters, requires the complete removal of contamination and demands full public disclosure. They should also have doubled the funding limits of Issue 1 in order to ensure significant environmental improvements.
But for all of its shortcomings, State Issue 1 could provide a much-needed boost for Ohio's environment.