Land preservation has dominated Chester County discourse since 1989 when more than 80 percent of voters approved an open space referendum. Apparently, little has changed in 14 years.
According to a December poll, said Peter Hausmann, a commercial developer, leader of Chester County Citizens to Save Open Space and former Chester County Planning Commission chairman, more than 83 percent of likely voters still support candidates who endorse open space initiatives.
"Open space isn't just an environmental issue," he said. "It's an economic issue in a knowledge-based economy."
Densey Juvonen, of West Marlborough, said she would like to see the open space initiatives of the current commissioners carry over to the next board. Juvonen is past chairwoman of Safety, Agriculture, Villages and Environment (SAVE), which was formed in opposition to PennDOT's proposal to widen Route 41.
"The consumer is willing to pay for clean air and clean water," she said. "And the consumer is now willing to pay for open space. People are willing to tax themselves. I think it's an idea whose time has come."
The commissioners' candidates has gotten the message. All of them have vowed to continue the land preservation policies of Landscapes, the county's comprehensive plan, if they are elected.
"One of the reasons I decided to run was to maintain the continuity of our Landscapes program," said Democratic incumbent Andrew Dinniman, 58, of West Whiteland, who is seeking his fourth term.
As one of its creators, he said, he understands the comprehensive plan better than the other candidates.
In Chester County about 5,000 acres are developed annually, he said, and the goal of Landscapes is to save an acre of land for every developed acre. The county, with the help of private initiatives, has saved more than 47,000 acres of open space. If the county is built out by 2020 as projected, Dinniman said, then 40 percent of the land will be preserved as open space under Landscapes.
Funding can be achieved in a variety of ways, Dinniman said, without simply spending more money.
The county can use its limited resources as a catalyst to secure other monies from the state and federal governments, private entities, conservancies and citizen involvement, he said.
He called $15 million a year in county funding a reasonable goal, if "we make sure it ends up being worth $30 or $40 million by bringing in partners."
Sometimes, he said, preservation initiatives require creativity. For example, Dinniman said, the county preserved 130 acres at Black Rock Basin in Phoenixville with the aid of the federal Migratory Bird Act.
"It's a constantly evolving program," said Dinniman. "It grows, it changes based on needs."
He said the newest land management trends include transit-related development and neotraditional approaches such as Eagleview, a multi-use development in Uwchlan that includes commercial, retail, residential and recreational components.
"Preserving open space and Landscapes is not just about money," said Dinniman.
Commissioners also "need to have the courage and conviction" to stand up to those who view land as a profit-making venture, he said.
Republican candidates Donald Mancini, 54, of Willistown, and Carol Aichele, 53, of Tredyffrin, unveiled "Preserving Our County, Planning Our Future" in March. At a press conference on the courthouse steps, they pledged to commit $60 million over four years to land preservation initiatives.
"We are the only candidates who have proposed a plan," Aichele said.
Mancini said he thought the land preservation proposal was "doable" without raising taxes.
"We wanted to make it clear that we were going to try to continue what the incumbents were doing," he said. "But we had to make our own statement about it."
The Republican candidates said they would continue efforts to seek matching funds from the state, as well as conservancy and municipal grants, to finance the program.
Although they agreed urban revitalization is a key component of Landscapes, Aichele, the county controller, said agricultural preservation would be the centerpiece of their proposal.
"We would be interested in lending help to make farms more profitable," said Mancini, the county register of wills and clerk of orphans' court.
He said this assistance could include helping farmers market their products or encouraging other groups to give them low-interest loans.
The Republican candidates hope to create an Open Space Advisors Task Force of seven to nine people if they are elected. They also cited the need to work with local municipalities to enhance land use initiatives.
"Part of the open space plan has always been the vision partnerships," said Aichele.
As pressure for development mounts, she said, good municipal comprehensive plans and ordinances will be vital to the success of land preservation programs.
The GOP candidates agreed that, since they live in parts of the county that already have faced a number of land planning issues, they could guide citizens in more rural municipalities that are just beginning to face development concerns.
Neither Aichele nor Mancini, a Willistown zoning hearing board member and former township planning commission member, identified any trends in land planning initiatives. However, they said the ability to adapt will be key elements of the continued success of the program.
"One thing you can count on is change," Aichele said.
Democratic candidate Michele Vaughn, 38, an East Whiteland supervisor, said she has acquired a land planning background as a local municipal official.
"My experience as a township supervisor in one of the fastest-growing townships has prepared me to work with my colleagues around the county," said Vaughn.
She said East Whiteland, which signed on with Landscapes in 1999, has received $871,550 in funds from the county.
Vaughn said the next step of Landscapes, is to foster multi-municipal cooperation in land planning issues. At this stage, she said, Landscapes should shift its focus from farmland preservation to urban revitalization.
"Creating downtown centers in places like West Chester, Coatesville and Kennett Square . . . will attract young people, the empty nesters," said Vaughn.
Brownfield redevelopment and working with local chambers of commerce to promote community cultural centers and streetscapes programs should be priorities, she said.
"People want to live and work and play in the same community," Vaughn said.
She is willing to float bonds to commit $10 million annually for the next four years to continue land preservation programs. She said she would prefer to prioritize capital projects and cut spending rather than raise taxes to continue open space initiatives. She also said the county should forge alliances with the business and development communities to finance land preservation programs.
Vaughn said Trammel Crow, which is developing the Atwater office complex between Route 29 in East Whiteland and Yellow Springs Road in Tredyffrin, committed $250,000 to East Whiteland after supervisors approached the developer about a partnership to upgrade Valley Creek Park.
By appealing to businesses, she said, people that benefit from land use initiatives by working in Chester County also can contribute to the program. For example, she said, the Valley Creek Park trail network will connect to paths in Great Valley Corporate Center.