Open Space Bond Funding Faces Cuts, Legislators Say

By JULIA WELLS
Gazette Senior Writer

Cape and Islands Rep. Eric T. Turkington and a growing group of state legislators took sharp aim at the Gov. Mitt Romney administration this week as reports surfaced about plans to slash funding for the state open space bond bill.

"Our forefathers recognized the value of open space by preserving lands hundreds of years ago. This wise philosophy of forsaking immediate financial reward while protecting lands for generations to come is the sole reason we enjoy the Boston Common, the oldest park in U.S. history, the Esplanade, Blue Hills Reservation stretching over 7,000 acres and Middlesex Fells, just to name a few," wrote four state legislators who head the Joint Committee on Natural Resources, in a letter to Governor Romney late last week.

"It's mind boggling to think that this administration comes in as a proponent of smart growth - now they want to take away the smart part of it and we'll just be left with the growth," declared Mr. Turkington yesterday. Mr. Turkington, who is vice chairman of the natural resources committee, was one of the four signers of the letter.

The letter was also signed by Sen. Pamela P. Resor and Rep. William G. Greene Jr., co-chairmen of the committee, and Sen. Stephen M. Brewer, who is vice chairman on the senate side.

A key tool that has been used over the years to protect hundreds of thousands of acres of open space across the state - including hundreds of acres on the Vineyard - the open space bond bill may now become the latest casualty under Governor Romney's budget guillotine.

The state budget for capital spending is due to be unveiled by the end of this month.

Mr. Turkington said yesterday that reports have begun to circulate around the state house that the governor is planning to drastically reduce - and possibly eliminate - funding for the open space bond bill.

Funding for the bond bill has historically been in the millions - in 1993 it reached a record $300 million under former Gov. William Weld. In their letter this week Mr. Turkington and his colleagues laid out a compelling set of facts:

* Between 1991 and 1998 more than 100,000 acres of open space were protected across the commonwealth at a cost of $337 million.

* Between 1998 and 2001 the state leveraged half the expenses to protect another 100,000 acres through creative partnerships with nonprofit land trusts and conservation organizations like The Trustees of Reservations and Mass Audubon.

Last year funding for the bond bill was about $70 million.

This year spending for open space is already way down - Mr. Turkington said since Governor Romney took office in January, only $13 million has been spent for open space.

Governor Romney claims to be a strong proponent of smart growth - a planning strategy that favors redevelopment over developing virgin land.

Over the years the open space bond bill has been used to launch a variety of programs like Self-Help and Agricultural Preservation Restriction, a program that buys development rights on farmland.

The APR program has been used to protect a large number of farms on the Vineyard over the years, including the Whiting Farm in West Tisbury, the Allen Farm in Chilmark and Morning Glory Farm in Edgartown.

Barnard's Inn Farm, the historic six-acre farmstead that is today home to the Polly Hill Arboretum, was preserved with the help of open space bond money seven years ago. "The preservation of Barnard's Inn Farm will allow visitors to smell the magnolias and stroll among the stewartia in Polly Hill's garden for decades to come . . . . This is truly a priceless jewel for Martha's Vineyard and for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts," said former Lieut. Gov. Paul Cellucci at the time.

Mr. Turkington and others said this week that it is unconscionable to eviscerate the open space bond bill.

"Open space preservation is vital to protecting our drinking water supply and biological diversity, promoting our agricultural and forestry industries, and providing ever-shrinking recreational access to all citizens of the commonwealth. A spending reduction would cripple state agency land conservation efforts," the legislators wrote. They also wrote:

"Our cash-strapped cities and towns reply on state programs such as Self-Help, Urban Self-Help and Agricultural Preservation Restriction programs to provide the matching funds to preserve their own natural resources. Only 13 per cent of the Connecticut River Valley of Massachusetts farmland is permanently protected, the rest is subject to the real estate market, resulting in development at a record pace. Communities are scrambling to put together the finances to preserve the rural character of their towns. With the cuts that have been made in local aid and other shrinking resources, to deny municipalities these vital preservation tools just does not make sense."

Mr. Turkington said he hopes the letter has an impact.

"If the state doesn't do this it won't get done. It can't happen without state participation," he said.

"We urge you to reconsider your decision to curtail a reasonable investment in the future quality of life in Massachusetts," Mr. Turkington and his colleagues wrote.