Sad History of Public Land for Private Profit

By Karrie E. Alms

What does open space forever mean to you? Many of our early leaders believed and many today know that public parks are a smart investment for America’s health and economy not just for the short term but for always.

Increasing our awareness of public health, environmental issues and an expanding need for recreational space resulted in the creation of laws to protect the outdoors for the benefit of future generations. In 1964, Congress established the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) to safeguard and enhance the conservation of natural resources and to provide for public outdoor recreation opportunities. This bipartisan approach focused on federal, state and local stewardship of land we all share and preservation of public lands for all Americans living and yet to be born.

Parks create a community heritage and play an important role in our individual and community health. Parks provide places for activities integral to keeping us healthy – physically, mentally, socially and emotionally. Exercise reduces anxiety, depression and can help alleviate symptoms of a variety of mental health conditions, including dementia and Alzheimer’s as well as fighting obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other health conditions.

Parks provide aesthetic beauty, healing us as well as re-oxygenating the air we breathe as we interact with nature and each other. Parks are part of our green infrastructure approach to managing storm water while creating recreational opportunities.

“Since 2000, the number of young educated adults moving to livable, walkable urban neighborhoods has increased by 37 percent,”  according to City Parks Alliance, LWCF – A Smart Investment in America’s Economy, 2016. Today and in the future the need for urban parks will only increase as ever increasing urban populations seek respite from our fast paced society.

The LWCF is a critical tool for helping communities make investments in public outdoor recreational opportunities. Regrettably over the past 50 years, Americans have seen the LWCF’s purpose transformed from a sacred stewardship of public land preservation and increasing the national recreational estate in perpetuity into a land banking scheme for private developers to purchase public parks at bargain basement prices. Elected officials and developers promise that if they can only build Development X, people will come and bushels of money will be made.  Build it and they will come. In exchange for our public open spaces municipalities offer overinflated fair market value replacement land which doesn’t compare in recreational usefulness to what we are asked to give up.

A public park is lost, municipal debt increases and the economic development becomes another burden on taxpayers, all accomplished by a simple majority vote of locally elected officials voting against the will of the people and giving away public parks. Once a space is sold, it is nearly impossible to regain that land for public use. This scenario is occurring in all corners of our nation.

The City of Peoria is seeking approval for its third LWCF conversion of Peoria’s Riverfront Park for a private apartment development and a road bisecting the park. Please invest your time and talents in supporting the preservation of public parks by contacting your local, state and federal elected officials to preserve Peoria’s Riverfront Park and strengthen the LWCF Act to prevent public land from being given away for private development.

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