At least during my entire lifetime, Americans have tended to romanticize the notion of government, as if it’s a sort of public trust that simply follows along according to the stated intentions of the people forever. But private trusts very often drift away from the desires of their founders, and government is an entity that will act in its own interests. Giving a piece of property to the government (or giving it money to buy the property) feels like saving that property from the whims of its owners, but all it really does is change the owners and the things that they’re likely to value.
Two stories today from over here on the Sakonnet River highlight this lesson. Jo C. Goode reports for the Fall River Herald News that the city is hoping to receive approval from the state to line the highways with more billboards:
The administration is proposing eight sites along Interstate 195 and Route 24 on city owned land. …
Mayor Jasiel Correia II last summer announced the billboard project and claimed that the digital billboards could generate $10 million to $15 million up front in lease agreements, with a projected annual revenue stream of $650,000 to the city for the next 20 years.
And in Tiverton, an independent water district has received permission from the town council to sell off some of its open space, according to Marcia Pobzeznik of the Newport Daily News:
The Stone Bridge Water District request to change zoning of a 4.8-acre parcel it owns at the end of North Brayton Road, near the new Ranger School, from open space to residential was approved by a majority of the Town Council Monday night amid a concern by a couple that this could set precedent. … The proceeds would be used to build a new office building that would be handicapped accessible. …
Civil engineer Donald Medeiros, who accompanied Corr and explained the plan to the Town Council, said the district is no longer eligible for state and federal grants because it does not meet Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines. Having an office that is handicapped-accessible would put the district in line for grants again.
The district has a financial need, and at the end of the day, this open space is just an asset.
The conversation of the council is telling, though. John Edwards the Fifth voted against the plan and asked why the Stone Bridge district couldn’t come to an agreement to share office space with the small town’s other independent water district in North Tiverton. Council Member Tricia Hilton* protested that “she would not want Stone Bridge to instead have to raise water rates to build a new office building.”
As a tangential part of the story, one should note that the tax rate for water in the Stone Bridge district, with its more-expensive real estate, has a tax rate of $0.50 per $1,000, while North Tiverton’s rate is $0.98, almost double. Blurring the lines of this arrangement could raise uncomfortable questions about why the whole town shouldn’t have a single tax rate that shifts some of the town’s water burden from the working-class north end to wealthier areas.
The key point, however, is that “open space” is only as secure as the incentives of people in government allow it to be. Maybe this land would have been sold for residential construction long ago had it not been handed over to the water district, or maybe it wouldn’t have been. The story of the privately owned land that will now house a new casino in Tiverton shows both that people purchase open land for a variety of reasons and that the people who own things never forget that they have some value.
And maybe the Fall River land that will increasingly clutter the scenery with the messages of the highest bidder really is the highest use of that land, but drivers will surely have their doubts, and taxpayers should, as well.
* This post originally stated that Mrs. Hilton lives in the Stone Bridge district. She does not; the district line ends north of her home. Readers interested in the operation of water districts are encouraged to review the comments to this post.