Better Get It While You Can

Notice to local, state and federal elected officials: Voters want more greenspace and are willing to pay for it.

Notice to business leaders: Always pay attention to political trends – they eventually affect your wallet.

The day after last November’s election, I received an email from my friend Sam Olens, Cobb County’s commission chairman, congratulating me on Paulding County’s successful efforts to pass a bond referendum to fund greenspace acquisitions. Paulding voters authorized $15 million for a public/private partnership to purchase approximately 7,000 acres of virgin timberland in the western part of the county.

I had congratulated him on Cobb’s similar referendums the day before. We noted it was interesting that two Republican chairmen would be known for their efforts to conserve and protect the environment. Both bond issues passed overwhelmingly with an excess of 71 percent of the popular vote.

Paulding and Cobb aren’t alone. In 2001, DeKalb County passed a $125-million greenspace bond referendum by a whopping 59 percent. These measures have passed by overwhelming electoral numbers. The votes seem to cross all political and partisan lines.

DeKalb County is an urban county in the Metro Atlanta core. DeKalb is dominated by Democrats. You would assume its voters would support an issue such as this.

Cobb County’s politics are fairly moderate. The county has a blend of Republicans and Democrats as elected leaders. Cobb has an urban area much like DeKalb’s, and the rest of the county is what would be referred to as suburban. A traditional green issue might pass in such a blended county, but you would expect the margin to be narrow (it wasn’t).

Paulding County is still predominantly rural in character, with a growing suburban area (adjacent to Cobb) and no urban area. Our residents are extremely conservative and 100 percent of the elected officials are Republicans. It would seem that the Republican voters of Paulding County would not support a tax increase; however, the measure won overwhelmingly in every precinct. Farmers and large tract owners voted for it, as well as the residents of upscale golf course communities.

One of the biggest surprises came from the business community. The chamber of commerce, Rotary clubs, builders association, and many other business groups led the charge. Not only did they support the effort, they also campaigned for it. They put signs in their windows at work and in their yards at home. They also contributed money to the greenspace campaign committee. On election night they kept the phone lines busy, hoping to get election results as they came in.

Universally, their story was the same: Quality of life is a big factor in the success of their business. When the community has a perception of a superior quality of life, the business opportunities expand. Trees, parks and quiet places are very important and add to the persona of the community. Business owners also saw the inherent value of a land purchase. They envisioned themselves and their families camping, fishing, hunting and hiking on this land. Most of these businesspeople would tell you they consider themselves politically conservative and would never support a tax increase, but they did.

I have a litmus test I sometimes use to gauge a new initiative. There are a couple of citizens I will run things by just to see how they react. They are considered “crotchety” by some people and are pretty much against anything with the word tax involved. I asked if they would support a tax increase to preserve 7,000 acres of greenspace. To my surprise, both were big fans. One responded by saying, “You better get it while you can. I want my grandkids to have a place to see some trees.” Neither of them asked how much it would cost them and both were glad of the chance to vote on the issue. I was amazed.

Georgia’s metro areas are growing at an astounding rate. It’s not just an “Atlanta thing.” Macon, Savannah, Valdosta, Albany, Rome and Columbus are all on-the-grow. Our citizens want to see us be proactive in the land conservation arena. We as politicians need to recognize this. Business leaders need to remind us when necessary. Present and future generations will thank us for stepping forward to preserve this acreage. Once the wild places are gone, we can never get them back.

Categories: Guest Commentary