Planning commission looks to reward preservation
State accounts for how much preservation costs in Charles County
Protecting the environment and preserving natural resources have taken precedence like never before after the Charles County Board of Commissioners ratified the new comprehensive plan.
With that comes the new challenge of finding ways to develop the county’s economic structure and ability to allow its citizens to profit from the county’s rural characteristics as well as its urban ones.
During last week’s planning commission meeting, Christine Conn and Elliot Campbell, two members of the integrated policy and review unit for the state’s Department of Natural Resources, proposed a way to potentially do so.
With “ecosystem services,” Campbell said, the county’s investment in nature can benefit it both economically and environmentally.
“This is certainly a concept we have believed in for a very long time,” Conn said. “We think investing in nature is a very good strategy.”
In short, the system quantifies what the economic benefits of preservation in specific areas are to the county and calculates what savings the county could have and what earnings land owners could bring back in through services such as tourism, cultural activity, stormwater control, erosion reduction and other environmentally friendly activities.
Campbell said the department looked at net present value, which is an accounting strategy, to see what the costs were for performing these services. That value returned from calculations is called an “ecoprice.”
The department measured how much services such as stormwater management, wildlife habitat preservation, carbon reduction and air pollution reduction costs the county each year.
The department’s calculations are derived from how many acres the county services per year, Campbell said. They also calculated how much money went into services for both rural and urban areas around the county.
Stormwater management and wildlife habitat preservation were by far the most costly activities for the county with $1,754 and $520 per acre spent each year, respectively, on each service.
Overall, Campbell said, the county spends $535.5 million per year on these ecosystem ser vices. That is the fourth highest ecosystem value in the state, Campbell said, which puts the county in a good place environmentally.
Charles County is one of the best places to account for ecosystem services, Campbell said, because of the “rich abundance of natural resources and high development pressure.”
“This information can be of the most use to Charles,” Campbell said.
The department is still working on summarizing the results of its calculations, creating a web tool for access and coming up with strategies to put this land to use economically, Campbell said.
Nancy Schertler, board member of the planning commission, said “this is really, really fascinating and interesting.”
“Again, it’s how do you use all of the information?” Schertler said.
The key, Schertler said, is finding ways to monetize this information and encouraging more landowners to continue to preserve in environmentally friendly ways.
Campbell said one thing that has not been fully developed in the state, as of yet, are ecosystem service marketplaces. There is a nutrient trading market, but it still has room to grow, he said. And in the past landowners have put their land into easements to protect endangered species, but that is a rarity.
But the hope, Campbell said, is more marketplaces will develop and landowners will eventually see compensation for their high value lands.
Conn said there is also room for new county policy development that will pay landowners through tax revenues or other funds.
“That’s a policy decision at various levels of government,” Conn said.
County Planning Director Steve Ball said the county already has active conservation programs in place such as the rural legacy program and the purchase of development rights. Some of them overlap with the concept of compensating landowners, he said.
Ball said the program is “interesting” from a planning point of view because whenever there are settlements, there is an impact on some natural resource. At some point, he said, the system starts to break down — a point still being heavily discussed.
“A lot of it comes down to what the county is willing to accept as a community,” Ball said.