RALEIGH — To help pay for the costs of growth and to ensure that there will parks and recreation for newcomers, Wake County requires subdivision developers to set aside land for recreational use or to pay a fee in lieu of a set-aside. This Recreation Land Dedication Ordinance, passed in 2002, has generated over $1.7 million for acquisition of recreational land in the county.
Yet despite the importance of the RLDO for creating and maintaining parks as new development occurs, the county Planning Board recently voted 7-2 to repeal it.
Wake's population has grown fast over the past 10 years. Five towns - Fuquay-Varina, Holly Springs, Morrisville, Rolesville and Wake Forest - have more than doubled in size since 2000. Despite the current economic slowdown, the Raleigh-Cary metro area is projected to be among the fastest growing in the nation over the next decade.
Accompanying this phenomenal rate of growth is a corresponding loss of open space and farmland. Environment North Carolina reported in "Losing our Natural Heritage: Development and Open Space Loss in North Carolina" that the Triangle region will lose 37 percent of its natural areas and all of its cropland between 2007 and 2027.
Losing open space and farmland diminishes the quality of life enjoyed by residents and affects our health and the viability of our economy. Recreational land and open space such as greenways in proximity to residential areas increase the value of adjacent property while improving health through active living. Open space also helps maintain clean skies and rivers and protect wildlife; it guards people and property from flood damage and enhances cultural awareness and community identity. Getting children back outdoors is essential for combating the obesity epidemic and related diseases.
Paying for parks costs all taxpayers. The key issue is whether these public infrastructure costs should be shared by the developers and newcomers who are adding to these costs. The RLDO is a way to share the burden fairly, which is why all area towns and counties also have impact fees for parks or open space.
The open-space bond issue that voters approved a few years ago has already paid for tens of millions of dollars of open space and water quality protection. That was money well-spent, and the bill is 100 percent paid by existing taxpayers.
It's true, however, that Wake County has had a difficult time spending the funds generated by the RLDO. This is due partly to a narrow restriction that requires the recreational space be within 3 miles of the new development. Why not make the area larger so the funds can be used more effectively?
Although disappointing, it's not surprising that the Planning Board voted to repeal the RLDO; some of its members have to comply with the ordinance. At least one member stated that he had paid such fees and intended to vote to repeal them.
We hope that the Board of Commissioners will take a more enlightened view and follow the advice of the Wake County Open Space and Parks Advisory Committee. That committee thoroughly reviewed the RLDO and came up with a list of recommendations to keep the ordinance in place and while modifying it to make it more usable. These include:
Actively seek joint county/municipal park or greenway acquisition with RLDO funds.
Expand existing county parks with RLDO funds where possible.
Purchase greenway corridor parcels.
Consider purchase of conservation/recreation easements when appropriate.
Seek school/park joint projects.
Clarify/retain flexibility in the ordinance language regarding distance.
Re-evaluate the effectiveness of the above recommendations in two years with the open space committee and consider whether a nationally recognized consultant in RLDOs should be hired to do a complete evaluation of the ordinance.
We urge the Board of Commissioners at its Aug. 1 meeting to reject the Planning Board's shortsighted recommendation to repeal the RLDO and instead consider the committee's practical recommendations that will maintain our quality of life here as we grow. The outdoor and recreational opportunities the RLDO supports are important for healthy living, environmental quality and economic growth - the very characteristics that make our region attractive to new residents and business.
Karen Rindge is executive director of WakeUP Wake County.