Bond measures: Innovative financing and acquisition of green spaces

Nancy Chase, a senior planner with expertise in natural areas acquisition, has had experience working both with Metro and smaller jurisdictions in the Portland metropolitan region. She has the unique experience of working on both a bond measure[1] that failed and those that succeeded. In the following interview, she shares her experiences on how failure was transformed into success as well as how money raised through this unique financing instrument of bond measures has helped shape the fate of natural areas and green spaces within the Portland metropolitan region. In addition, she also shares her top tips on land acquisition that could be useful in the Indian context as well.

Natural areas bond measure

What steps did you take to ensure the second bond measure for natural areas acquisition succeeded after the failure of the first $200 million bond measure in 1992?

After Multnomah County Parks and Recreation’s successful transfer to Metro, Metro had experienced staff to manage parks, trails and natural areas. We had already built political support for the region’s natural areas master plan through public outreach and political consensus building. One of the criticism from the failed bond measure was that we only had “greenies” advocating for the bond (the first bond measure was sponsored by the Audubon Society). In response to this criticism, a Blue Ribbon Committee of business leaders from the region was formed to help package the bond measure and give strategic advice. Involving the business people not only helped create a better package, but many of them also became contributors to the bond campaign fund.

The Blue Ribbon Committee stressed the need for the bond package to be specific about the natural area acquisitions and trails that would result if the bond was approved. The committee respected the biologists selections, but once they had this list, they picked out additional areas to spread the money evenly across the region — everybody would get something. They also recommended that rather than all the money coming to Metro, a percentage of the bond should go to each local government so that they could buy the smaller areas within their jurisdictions. So all of a sudden there was something for each little town. This was important for the bond to pass — after all, if people are paying taxes, they should see the benefit from it in their jurisdiction and city, regardless of how high the project ranks. Hence, the business component brought in more of the ground level realities and practical marketing approaches to the bond measure.

It should be noted that government staff  are not allowed to campaign in favour of a bond measure, but only present the facts — here is what it is going to cost you, and here is what it would buy. Informational maps were created showing where each project is going to be along with a concise description of each project on the backside of the map. There were additional fact sheets answering common questions and highlighting the economic impacts of trails and natural areas in neighbourhoods, such as an increase in tourism, property values and tax revenue. Private funds were raised to hire a campaign manager and staff who along with numerous volunteers worked with neighbourhood groups and non-profit organisations to turn out a positive vote.

We understood from many meetings with the community and park advocates what people thought was important to preserve in Portland’s quality of life. Many of the voters had moved up in the 70s and 80s from areas of the country that had been poorly developed, such as California, and had seen what happens when growth is unplanned; they had moved to this area because they liked the trees and the natural areas. So people were very supportive of protecting natural areas and providing trails that link to natural areas.

So the second bond measure was successful because we had managed to get the pricing right and were specific about where the money would go. Metro had also acquired the management ability. Politically too, Metro shared responsibility and funding with all its partner jurisdictions, making them much more cooperative.

Obviously, this bond couldn’t achieve everything, and that is where the prioritising work we had done earlier, before there was money, really helped. We could confidently tell any city or county that complained about fund allocation that it was their council that adopted this plan. The Blue Ribbon Committee picking out the best out of these priority projects was also helpful in prioritising fund allocation. For instance, Fanno Creek trail is not biologically the best, but it passes through seven jurisdictions serving a wide population base. The focus on selection was definitely to serve regional, not local needs.

Why was the third bond measure introduced?

The bond dollars were nearly expended and there was still a need for more natural area and trails acquisition. It had been quite a booming economy and a lot of people realised that the areas that they considered important were not on the second (first successful) bond measure list. So the third bond measure was proposed for finishing off some old projects and proposing a new project list. They also created a nature in neighborhoods grant fund,  to use for green projects such as bioswails for stormwater runoff, or adding natural areas in older parts of the city such as Irvington. For instance, the fund could be used by a school to pull up some of its paving to plant trees and create a community garden; or create a little nature park within developed neighborhoods.

One thing I want to note on the first successful bond measure is that we really felt it was important  to keep the public informed of our progress. So our public relations staff ensured that every time an acquisition was made, there would be press coverage. When we had all the pieces to form a particular natural area park, we would make sure that local politicians and citizen representatives were invited to do the speeches and ribbon cutting. Every two years, we also produced a formal Report to the Citizens. The reports informed citizens of the progress in terms of acres acquired, trail miles, etc. and included detailed photos and information. The report copies were made available at Metro, and distributed to all local council representatives and posted online.

So by the time we were ready with the next bond measure, people were familiar with the programme and its track record. One drawback was that in areas where we had already acquired all the desirable land parcels in the previous bond measure, the support groups were not as actively campaigning for the next bond measure although they were still supportive. The third bond measure therefore passed quite easily.

Today we have a big pot of money for natural areas preservation and development from the two successful bond measures that Metro initiated. We raised $227 million from the recent bond and $135 million from the previous one.

Future:

What are the next steps for developing natural areas in the region?

We are looking for ways to  link the natural areas together so that they are more accessible to the public as well as on foot or bicycle. We also need to increase awareness amongst people and education at every age about getting to these areas and engaging in a range of activities for enjoying these amenities. We should also look beyond the 2040 plan at maybe 2060 to see how we will find the large areas for that period.

Another thing to look at is more amenities for urbanised areas such as street trees, bioswails and naturescaping. For instance, when someone builds an office building, in many areas you are required to have a percentage of landscaping for trees in the parking lot etc. It would be good if we could focus our energies on native landscaping in yards to reduce water usage and provide habitat for bird species and insect species. In my own yard, there is no lawn but there are a lot of flowers and the insect count is tremendous; a reliable food source leads to more birds. I think even if you are in a developed neighbourhood you can do a lot to help the environment through such measures.

My takeaways:

  1. Successfully raising money through bond measures requires building a constituency, involving all stakeholders, and designing an effective and simple information and outreach campaign.
  2. Allocating the money amongst jurisdictions so that everyone benefits leads to a win-win solution so that everyone is on board and agreeable.
  3. Determining priority projects before bringing in discussions of money and financing is a useful strategy to ensure that money does not skew focus.

[1]bond measure is an initiative to sell bonds for the purpose of acquiring funds for various public works projects, such as research, transportation infrastructure improvements, and others. These measures are put up for a vote in general elections and must be approved by a majority of voters, depending on the specific project in question.
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About the Author

Ishani Mehta Ishani Mehta is The Urban Vision's Fellow at The Young Urban Leader Program. Ishani is working in Portland as part of the program. The program is aimed at facilitating knowledge transfer between cities known for their progressive planning policies and rapidly urbanizing India. The YUL Portland Fellowship is supported by Portland State University and Portland Metro. The Program in Portland was made possible due to the support of Nancy Chase , Independent Planning Professional in Portland and Architect Hafeez Contractor in India. Ishani has been working in New Delhi as an urban infrastructure analyst for the past three years. She has experience in writing articles, papers, reports and newsletters on urban infrastructure developments in India. Her areas of professional interest include urban transport, development policy and planning, civic infrastructure and basic services, and infrastructure financing. By background, she holds a Masters in Economics from the Delhi School of Economics, prior to which she graduated in Economics from the University of Delhi in 2006. Ishani has held various positions of leadership during her academic life. She was the Co-President (Campus) for ShARE-Global, a students' organisation spanning over 20 campuses across the world. During undergraduation, she was the Council Member and Treasurer of the college Economics Scoiety.