Andover and other communities ask voters to save open spacesby Lorna Benson, Minnesota Public Radio
Two suburbs and one metro-area county will decide whether they're willing to pay higher property taxes to protect natural areas from encroaching development this November. Andover, Plymouth and Washington County have referenda on their ballots that, if passed, would raise millions of dollars to buy parklands and preserve agricultural areas, wetlands and woodlands.
Andover, Minn. — Gretchen Sabel has lived in Andover for 22 years. When she first arrived, her city was small and surrounded by Anoka County farmland. Now most of the farms are gone and Andover's population has swelled to 30,000.
"It's hard on us to think that the things that we had grown accustomed to, the open look of Andover, the feel of the city is changed so much," she says. "Traffic is so bad going into town, even just coming down the county roads in the mornings, it's hard to get out because there's so many people to the north of us. We used to be the end. You know, we used to be where the traffic started. No more."
On a recent drive around the outskirts of town, Sabel points to some remnants of undeveloped land that she hopes the city will preserve if voters approve Andover's $2 million referendum.
"This is the lot here that I always enjoyed the corner that's now for sale. I'm gonna pull off here."
Sabel gets out of her car and looks up at a stand of tall hardwood trees at the corner of a busy intersection. Recently she found out that the land has been zoned for commercial use.
"I never thought it would change, I guess is how I feel about it. And when you see the for-sale sign come on it's just like an arrow in your heart."
It's not that Sabel is against development. She recognizes it's going to happen. She just thinks Andover needs to get into the game by having its own pool of money to buy parcels of land that residents think are worth preserving.
She's not alone in her thinking. Andover City Administrator Jim Dickinson says a poll conducted last spring showed that more than 80 percent of Andover residents support the purchase of natural or open space lands.
"We were just surprised at the fact that it was that overwhelming (amount) of support out of the survey, that was showing that not only were people interested in it, but there was actually a level of support from a financial perspective. And I think that was really what put it over the top, that people were willing to put their money where their mouth was," he said.
The poll results spurred city officials to convene a task force made up of Andover citizens who then used the information to come up with ballot language that they hope voters will support. Andover's referendum asks voters to approve a property tax increase that would cost approximately $8 per year for each $100,000 in property value. The average home in Andover costs around $300,000. So the average annual tax per property would be about $24.
Cordelia Pierson with The Trust for Public Lands says when voters are given specifics about what they will have to personally spend, they're generally receptive to open space proposals.
"If it's something like, are you willing to pay $2.16 to protect natural areas and water quality, that's a small price to pay, are you willing to pay that? Yes tends to be more likely than not, the answer for that."
Nationally more than 75 percent of open space referenda pass, according to Pierson. In Minnesota the percentage is a little bit higher at around 79 percent. Over the past 18 years, 24 open space and land preservation referenda have hit the ballot in Minnesota. Nineteen of them have passed. When they do pass, Pierson says it's by a wide margin - on average 60%.
"These aren't passing by a hair or by a margin. It's a fairly solid majority that is saying yes to conserving natural areas and water quality."
Pierson says the proposals that resonate most strongly with voters are those to protect water quality. After that, she says natural areas, habitat and wildlife are typically next in importance, followed by parks and trails.
In addition to Andover's open space proposal, Plymouth and Washington County are also seeking money to preserve woodlands and other natural areas. Plymouth is asking voters to approve $9 million. Washington County is seeking $20 million.
- Morning Edition, 10/16/2006, 7:44 a.m.