In prepared remarks last month, East Hampton Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson said that the “dedication of close to 50 percent of the available land to open space has led to a serious shortfall of affordable housing for local people.” If only it were that easy.
Those who see a simplistic causal relationship between the preservation of open space and an absence of reasonably priced housing are mistaken. There is no evidence that the one causes the other. Quite the contrary, studies have long shown that open spaces and parks help keep taxes low — which, in turn, helps ensure that families with a diverse range of income levels can remain part of a community. As residents of overdeveloped towns UpIsland already know all too well, the things that replace open space — roads and sewage treatment, schools and bridges, policing — don’t come cheap. When a high percentage of land is publicly owned, the cost of living actually is kept down. East Hampton taxes are a bargain by comparison.
What Mr. Wilkinson and others repeating this misconception seem to believe is that lower-cost houses and apartments are a natural result of denser development. That if, say, Barcelona Neck had been subdivided all those many years ago, the addition of those extra properties to the market would have a ripple effect of lowered prices elsewhere in the town. This simply doesn’t hold water. (Just how much new construction would the town have to absorb, in this scenario, in order to see any decline in housing costs? Would anyone even find that trade-off desirable?)
Of course, the serious risk of thinking like this is that it might go beyond idle talk and become the basis of policy. This could already be happening: Community preservation fund land buys have been few and far between lately — at a time when purchases of vacant land appear to be otherwise accelerating, and the last open spaces disappearing.
East Hampton voters three times approved the preservation fund by wide margins. It has never been funded by a general tax on all of us, but by a 2-percent transfer tax paid by purchasers of real estate above certain minimums. To argue that it is any sort of egregious tax burden akin to school or property taxes would be specious. By almost any measure, the C.P.F. has been a wild success. And it is most certainly not to blame for our housing ills.