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Landscape Taxes

By Buck Abbey, ASLA, Robert Reich School of Landscape Architecture, Louisiana State University

The U.S. Forest Service, through its Urban and Community Forestry Act, has been passing public money to the states for over 20 years to fund community tree planting programs. This map shows locations that experienced wildfires greater than 250 acres, from 1980 to 2003!

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Grants Pass, Oregon has numerous existing tree programs and is a Tree City USA. Oregon uses public tax dollars to support local planting projects.

"Like taxes and death, landscape ordinances usually are inevitable..."--Robert Butin, Learning the Landscape

No one really likes taxes, but if you are going to tax, why not do so for landscape improvements? Public taxing for landscaping is not a new idea but it is relatively rare across the nation. The U.S. Forest Service though its Urban and Community Forestry Act has been passing public money to the states for over 20 years to fund community tree planting programs. Oregon understands that protecting, preserving and rebuilding the urban forest is essential, and the state uses public tax dollars to support local planting projects. A public sponsored reforestation program created in New York City is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to plant one million trees as part of Mayor Bloomberg's PlaNYC sustainability program.

Types of Landscape Taxes

There are several ways communities tax themselves for landscape purposes. Some communities do it through capital construction projects in which a small percentage of the project's budget is set aside for specific landscape improvements. Baton Rouge, Louisiana is currently doing this with three percent set aside from an ambitious Green Light streets program. The money is being raised through bonds and will be paid back with interest to bond houses over the next 21 years. Financing landscape improvements through long-term debt may not be the best way to raise landscape taxes however.
Other communities raise money through property taxes. A small additional percentage or millage is tacked on and money raised in this way goes directly into a program that will buy up land for landscape purposes or simply used to add landscape improvements to public land, parks, schools and building sites. Fairhope, Alabama does it this way. This community was founded in 1896 as a utopian single-tax colony following the liberal thinking of economist Henry George. In Fairhope, land is owned in common and rents are assessed to raise taxes for any approved community project including landscaping. Some 1800 leaseholds still exist in the community that may fund landscape improvements.

Still other communities find landscape improvements funding through tax increment financing (TIF). TIFs allow a community to make improvements and raise long-term city revenue as a result of those improvements. TIFs return the pre-improvement property taxes to the general fund, while the 'increment' created through new development stays in the TIF district. Communities in Montana, such as Bozeman, Whitefish and Missoula, use TIF to improve older parts of town. The increment can fund landscaping and streetscape improvements.

Some communities do 'volunteer taxes' by setting up tree and landscape funds in which people donate money or other assets for community landscaping and tree planting programs. Often these programs are set forth in the community landscape ordinance and are used to mitigate the removal of existing trees using an 'in lieu of' method of compensation. This negotiated approach allows a developer to mitigate the loss of trees offsite by contributing cash to a landscape fund. Funds raised in this manner are restricted to tree and landscape plantings as well as management and maintenance. San Antonio, Texas, Ridgeland, Miss., Forsyth County, Ga. and Visalia, Calif. all do this. In Pasco County, Fla. the program is set forth in Sec. 602.11 of the land development code. This method can be used in any community with a landscape or tree ordinance.
And finally, some community codes actually set up landscape planting districts funded by public dollars collected through property assessments. Cities in California and Florida do this.

Greenstreets is an extensive urban beautification initiative in New York City. Under the program thousands of unused concrete and striped islands formed by intersecting streets have become leafy, pint-sized parks.

Local Assessments

Many will say Collier County, Fla. is an exception. It certainly is an exceptional place to live based upon its beauty and Southern charm. With its near paradise like climate and its tropical palm landscape, people flock her in the winter to escape the snow, ice and cold of northern climes. It is not surprising that this community looks at its landscape differently. Naples, Marco Island and Bonita Springs realize that landscaping maintains community real estate values and in fact even increases the economy due to tourism.

The Collier County code creates municipal service taxing units (MSTUs) A MSTU is a funding mechanism to create, through approval of the board of county commissioners, a special taxing district to make improvements to neighborhoods and or community areas. Res. No. 96-134, March 12, 1996 allows citizens to petition for these improvement districts. There are six such districts in the county.

Public tax funding is created through a millage rate set by the MSTU's enabling ordinance. MSTU capital projects include beautification to public streets, parks and beaches, but can also be used for drainage improvements, road improvements, decorative lighting and sidewalk construction.

California's Landscaping and Lighting (L & L) District Act finances landscaping and lighting of public areas. Approved uses include installing and maintaining landscaping, statues, fountains, general lighting, traffic lights, plus recreational and playground courts and equipment.

California Taxes

California landscape taxes explain why many communities in California have such wonderfully landscaped streets, parks and public places.

The California 1972 Landscaping and Lighting District Act is a flexible tool used by local government agencies to pay for landscaping in public places, such as streets, parks, schools, or water districts. As a form of benefit assessment, it is based on the concept of assessing only properties that benefit from improvements financed, either directly or indirectly through increased property values.

L & L Districts have as their main purpose the financing the costs and expenses of landscaping and lighting public areas. The many approved uses include installation and maintenance of landscaping, statues, fountains, general lighting, traffic lights, recreational and playground courts and equipment. The act allows for acquisition of land for parks and open spaces, plus the construction of community centers and municipal auditoriums. Notes or bonds can be issued to finance large improvements under this act.

This program seems to be working fine for such cities as Pinole, Thousand Oaks, Garden Valley and Folsum, California.

Folsum has 25 L & L Districts, organized according to the Landscaping and Lighting Act of 1972, Part 2, Division 15 of the California Streets and Highway Code and Article XIIID of the California Constitution. Public improvements assessment taxes for 2008-2009 total $3.5 million for this community.

Individual budget report and plans are prepared yearly for each of the 25 districts. As an example, the Prairie Oaks Ranch District has work scheduled for street landscaping and centralization of their irrigation system as well as service costs and general maintenance costs. The assessment per household for these improvements is $213 per year. This is a relatively modest amount of tax dollars to pay for community landscaping projects.
Taxing for public landscaping is an idea with lots of merit. Why should landscaping not be considered an important public service?

D.G. "Buck" Abbey, Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture at Louisiana State University, is LASN's Associate Editor for Ordinances.

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December 11, 2019, 1:21 pm PDT

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