Tax-exempt preserves encompassing the forests, fields, creeks and shores of the Thousand Islands region not only protect the flora and fauna in them, but help generate millions of dollars in tax revenue and visitor spending, according to a recent study.
The Thousand Islands Land Trust, Clayton, unveiled the study, “The economic benefits of preserves, trails, and conserved open spaces in the 1000 Islands region,” after years of research. Trust for Public Land wrote the report in 2018 after conducting the analysis, and Martin Heintzelman, an associate professor of Clarkson University, provided a technical review.
The local trust has striven to protect the wetlands, grasslands and woods of the Thousand Islands since 1985 through land conservation, and provided access to much of it through trails. The Otter Creek, Crooked Creek, Zenda Farms and Foster-Blake Woods preserves are listed in the group’s portfolio. Its efforts have resulted in 6,640 acres conserved through acquisition, which are tax exempt, and 4,270 acres protected through conservation easements, which are not tax exempt, in Jefferson and St. Lawrence counties.
According to the study, funded by TILT through a grant from the Fresh Sound Foundation, state parks and land conserved by local trusts in Jefferson and St. Lawrence counties helped bring in an additional $684,000 per year by raising the taxable value of nearby properties. Use of trails, preserves and open spaces also generates an estimated $4.68 million in sales tax and $37.9 million in visitor spending, according to the report.
Separate, but pertinent data collected by TILT, evaluated by Trust for Public Land and reviewed by Mr. Heintzelman, who did not return a request for comment, concluded that the taxable value generated from the local trust’s conservation efforts outweighed the value lost from acquiring land in Jefferson and St. Lawrence counties, removing them from the tax rolls.
“Overall, I think you will find the case study an accurate representation of the overall economic benefit these trails provide municipalities,” said Jake R. Tibbles, executive director of TILT.
The release of the study follows about five years of Mr. Tibbles’s own investigation and into the economic effects of TILT’s land acquisition and conservation, particularly when his organization has faced scrutiny for it even longer.
Ever since TILT hired him 13 years ago, Mr. Tibbles, Omar, said he has heard several residents and local leaders raise concerns about the tax-exempt nonprofit and state buying land for conservation and recreation and removing them from the tax rolls. They contended the loss of tax revenue would require other property owners to make up the shortfall. Mr. Tibbles said he wanted to address their troubles through the study.
“My initial reaction is that of understanding,” he said. “TILT is an entity that conserves land, and it’s our responsibility providing information and data to the general public of the impacts of the work that we are doing.”
Mr. Heintzelman, who specializes in financial studies and economics, including environmental economics, crafted a scientific literature review with Maura Maguire, also affiliated with Clarkson at the time, that Mr. Tibbles said he helped guide the methods for the study. Analysts and economists from Trust for Public Land then conducted the study using the literature review, its own research and tools and information provided by TILT about its protected lands.
“This new report shows that the Thousand Islands Region’s preserves, trails, and open spaces are some of its greatest assets,” wrote Carter Strickland, New York State director for The Trust for Public Land, in a prepared statement.
Home buyers would typically pay more for homes located closer to preserves, trails and open spaces, Trust for Public Land inferred. Locations near conserved land with scenic views, public access and water bodies can increase value, so long as the land is well-maintained. Higher value properties mean more tax revenue.
While some studies indicate that conserved spaces can raise the value of properties as far as 2,000 feet away by as much as 20 percent or more, Trust for Public Land’s figures use a 5 percent markup for properties within 500 feet of preserves.
Even with what the group considered conservative estimates, its analysis concluded that trails, preserves and open spaces raised the value of 7,360 nearby homes in Jefferson and St. Lawrence counties by $55.9 million, and the annual tax revenue from them by $684,000.
“Residents choosing to call the Thousand Islands home value being close to the region’s preserves, trails, and conserved open spaces,” Mr. Heintzelman wrote in a prepared statement. “Be it a family home near Zenda Farms Preserve or a summer cottage near one of the several state parks in the region, these amenities create additional value across our local communities.”
While he could not speak to preserves and open spaces, Lance M. Evans, executive officer of both the Jefferson-Lewis Board of Realtors and St. Lawrence Board of Realtors, said he also found another report that concluded trails raise home values, although “they didn’t find as dramatic a value” increase as the Trust for Public Land piece.
Mr. Evans cited “Measuring Trails Benefits: Property Value,” by Headwater Economics, which reported in 2016 that homes near various trails across the country earned a premium. Homes within a quarter mile of a trail received a 10 percent uptick in value in Methow Valley, Wash.; homes within half a mile of the rail-trail Monon Trail in Indianapolis, Ind., received an 11 percent premium and trails associated with greenbelts in San Antonio, Texas, gave nearby homes a 5 percent uptick.
Trails not only provide opportunities for hiking, biking and other recreation, but a safe space to do so, Mr. Evans said, adding value to the homes near them.
“Trails, like good schools and low crime, create an amenity that creates higher prices on homes,” Mr. Evans said. “I think that it’s in the same respect to waterfront.”
The report from Trust for Public Land provides county- and region-wide analysis of how all tax-exempt conserved spaces conserved land benefits home values, and therefore tax revenue, but Mr. Tibbles wanted a more-detailed breakdown.
In order to demonstrate how TILT’s conservation efforts affected tax revenue through increasing the value of neighboring properties, he requested Trust for Public Land to provide a town-by-town breakdown of properties solely affected by TILT’s trails, preserves and open spaces from its analysis for the report. They used data dating from January of 2018, meaning recent acquisitions like 500 acres surrounding Payne Lake in Antwerp and Rossie, were not included.
The analysis, which was not included in the report, found that TILT removed about a combined $7 million in taxable value from Cape Vincent, Clayton, Orleans, Philadelphia and Sackets Harbor in Jefferson County by claiming land over the years. The trusts conserved parcels, however, raised the 884 homes in the county by a combined $11.5 million, increasing the taxable value by about $4 million.
The trust removed $1 million in taxable value from the town of Hammond in St. Lawrence County by claiming land over the years, but their preserves raised the value of 159 nearby properties by about $2 million, creating a net benefit of $1 million in taxable value, according to the dataset.
“We predominantly found that TILT’s conserved lands resulted in a net increase in the tax base,” Mr. Tibbles said.
Alexandria Town Supervisor Brent H. Sweet said he wanted to see the data in the study and documentation used for the analysis. In his town, TILT removed about $1 million in taxable value from the tax base, but its conserved parcels in the town, including the Otter and Crooked Creek Preserves, raised the value of 257 homes near its conservation land, by $2 million, thus yielding a net increase of about $1 million, according to the data.
Some town residents in the past have criticized TILT for removing land from the tax rolls, land that could be developed, Mr. Sweet said. Mr. Tibbles in 2015 held an information session explaining and defending the trust’s conservation efforts in the town. Mr. Sweet, however, said one benefit from the trust’s preserved, tax-exempt lands was providing neighbors greater security with controls on who can access the land near them and what they can do.
“I can understand how it could possibly increase the value of homes within 500 feet,” he said.
The study could not provide concrete data on the economic effects of trails, preserves and open spaces on the tourism sector of the Thousand Islands because no data illustrates which visitors travel to the region primarily for those features. Using economic data about the local tourism industry and visitor data in similar studies for other regions, however, Trust for Public Land was able to estimate the effects, concluding that conserved land plays a key role in the local industry.
The group assumed that 10 percent of visitors travel to the region for its preserves and trails, a conservative guess based on studies of nearby areas, ones that found that 10 percent of day visitors and 14 percent of overnight visitors traveled to the Adirondacks for its trails, and that 17.5 percent of visitors traveled to Lake George for outdoor activities.
Based on the estimate and Trust for Public Land’s research finding that the local tourism sector generates $379 million in visitor spending, $37.9 million of tourist spending “is attributable to the preserves, trails, and conserved open spaces.” The spending from visitors seeking these outdoor spaces help support jobs, labor income, local and state sales tax revenue.
Trust for Public Land also claims in its study that these preserves support residential spending, particularly in the sports, recreation, and exercise equipment category. The study concluded that residents in Jefferson and St. Lawrence counties spend $11.8 million on these goods, which in tandem with visitor spending, supports 48 sporting goods stores and 308 jobs.
“Not only does the land we conserve protect open space, recreational trails, clean air, clean water and preserves scenic viewshed, but provides economic benefit for money being spent in the local economy,” Mr. Tibbles said.
Corey C. Fram, executive director of the 1000 Islands International Tourism Council, said he could not comment on the study’s findings Friday, but concurred that state parks and local preserves played a crucial role in the local tourism economy.
A 2016 study from the council found that 10 percent of travelers to the Thousand Islands region stayed in public and private campgrounds. Mr. Fram also said state parks in the region attract about 1 million visitors each summer.
As a rural area abutting Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River, Mr. Fram said providing travelers from metropolitan areas the opportunity to enjoy the quiet of nature is a key draw to the area. The parks, trails and preserves that provide access to the water and woods help provide that marketable experience.
“The Thousand Islands would not be as popular of a destination without public access to all of our natural resources, our water, woods, shorelines and fields, frankly,” he said.
The Trust for Public Land concludes it has found contributions to the local economy from trails, preserves and open spaces, both from raising home value to garnering tourist and resident spending.
Mr. Tibbles said TILT has always strived to work with local communities in ensuring its conservation efforts benefit them, and the study’s findings validates its work. While the study correlates preservation of the natural landscape with economic growth, he said the trust will continue to observe the needs of all living things in the Thousand Islands.
“The way TILT currently plays a role, and will continue to play a role in the future, is ensuring the wildlands not only remain protected for wildlife, but also for residents and tourists,” Mr. Tibbles said.