In 1998, Connecticut's Governor Rowland announced an ambitious goal to conserve 21% of the Nutmeg State by 2023. The Rowland administration calculated that conserving 21% of the 3.5 million acres in Connecticut (wet or otherwise) would represent 673,210 acres (although 21% of 3,547,731 acres is 745,023 by my reckoning). In any case, at that time and in aggregate, the 169 municipalities in Connecticut contained 14% permanently protected land, so using Rowland's figures in 1998 Connecticut had 25 years to protect 224,179.93 acres, or 8967.1572 acres each year for the next quarter century.
So how are we doing, Connecticut? Governor Rowland resigned in a cloud of scandal to avoid impeachment and subsequently served some jail time after pleading guilty to one count of "conspiracy to deprive the state of his honest services." The economic prospects of Connecticut in 1998 were quite different from the post 9/11 economy, and state investment in open space conservation has dropped at the same time that private philanthropy for land protection has sharply declined. On the other hand, the pace of development across much of the state and soaring real estate values threaten the conservation gains made by local and regional land trusts and the state during the the last decade.
One measure of how much land is protected each year is the investment the State makes in open space acquisition. Connecticut established an open space matching grant grant program in 1998 that expires when the state reaches its 21% open space goal. In four grant rounds between 1998 and 2000, 7,084 acres were protected with the help of $20.5 million in state funding. A grant round in 2001 protected 1,564 acres in 28 towns with $8.3 million. Then in 2002, Governor Rowland allocated 80 million dollars from a state budget surplus to protect 15,300 acres of water company land in partnership with The Nature Conservancy which provided an additional 10 million. In contrast, during the most recent legislative session, not one penny of the State's budget surplus when to open space preservation.
In 2005 the state announced $6.8 million in grant assistance to help protect 2,000 acres in 24 towns and that after 10 grant rounds it was at 70% of its open space goal.
Let's consider that statement for a moment. That means all the land protection in the state in the seven years between 1998 and 2005 - 22,215.93 acres without considering the water company deal- pushed the aggregate amount of open space up from 14% to 14.7% of the total area of the state. This number seems a bit low to me, since the 10 grant rounds by my calculations would have produced about this amount on their own. The state DEP in the late 1990s was adding about as much open space through its direct acquisition as the matching grant program enabled. In recent years its acquisitions have declined. However, if we use the state's own figure of going from 66.667% of its open space goal to 70% in seven years, it will take 70 more years to reach the 2023 goal. Even if we are charitable and throw in an extra 3% in 7 years to account for land protected by the state in fee, the 2023 goal will be reached in 35 years, or about twice as long as the target date.
It is difficult to get a handle on the actual pace of conservation in Connecticut. Individual land trusts may be aware of what else has been conserved in the communities they serve, but the state's open space GIS data is error prone and local assessor's offices have an incomplete understanding of what is permanently protected in their localities. Furthermore, the 21% goal is an executive benchmark. The enabling legislation for Connecticut's open space aquisition specifies that the state would protect through direct aquisition 10% of the total land area and municipalities, non-profits and federal agencies would protect 11%. It is not entirely clear from government press releases against which goal progress is being measured: the state's 10% or the total 21% protected open space.
In the Litchfield Hills, the Greenprint program that I direct is gathering data on the pace of land protection in each of the 25 towns in our area over the past decade, and comparing that with the rate of new housing construction in each of these communities. Some preliminary data shows that communities with active land trusts, a deep local philanthropic base, current open space and development plans, and a strong sense that what they cherish is threatened are doing more land protection than those without these qualities. A town like Roxbury in southern Litchfield County has a robust land trust that manages to conserve property at an astounding rate of 155 acres/year. It sees about 18 new housing starts a year and has seen development sprawling in neighboring communities. A land trust in a town like Watertown with about 69 housing starts a year is lucky to protect 5.5 acres in the same period. Warren, CT sees about 10 new houses a year and its land trust conserves about 20 acres a year, which assuming an average lot size of 2 acres indicates that they are just keeping up with the current pace of development. A 10 lot subdivision in Warren would be considerably out of character with the Town's development trend and the current rate of conservation would not be enough to compensate for its impacts.
Whether any of these communities feels it has conserved what is most important to preserve its character or the ecological significance of its landscape is a different matter. For some towns, the state's 21% goal is too little, while others do not have enough open space left to have a realistic chance of reaching it at all. For Connecticut's overall open space preservation goal to be meaningful, the rate of land protection needs to increase dramatically and the only way for that to happen is for there to be larger and more reliable sources of conservation funding, especially from government sources. Localities will also have to consider increasing their investment in preserving open space, including open space bond initiatives for land protection in their towns.
One thing is certain. We do not have 35 years left to conserve what we most value about this landscape and our communities. All indications are that statewide and within the Litchfield Hills, development is far outpacing land protection. To reach CT's open space goal, we need to protect nearly 9,000 acres a year, while every year we lose 16,500 acres to development.