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Landowners on the Metropolitan Fringe

Results from a Survey of Owners in Four U.S. Metropolitan Areas

Jennifer Hrabchak Molinsky

June 2007, English

The Lincoln Institute of Land Policy conducted a study of metropolitan fringe landowners between 2002 and 2003, surveying by telephone over 2,000 owners of open, undeveloped fringe land in four U.S. metropolitan regions: Austin, Texas; Charlotte, North Carolina; Portland, Oregon; and Sacramento, California. The project examined owners’ identities; their behaviors, including when and how owners acquired their property, how they currently use their land, and their intentions going forward; and the interests they have in their land. This paper presents results from the survey, highlighting two areas of findings in particular.

First, the paper explores owners’ identities and behaviors, highlighting the many ways in which land use patterns, owners’ characteristics, and owners’ behaviors are consistent across the metropolitan fringes Austin, Charlotte, Portland, and Sacramento. The overall survey findings reveal that fringe areas are characterized by a mix of land uses but dominated by agriculture, though the owner population is composed primarily of retirees and professionals not involved in land-intensive work. There is a mix of parcel sizes, from large open and agricultural land to smaller home lots. There are significant groups of both longtime owners and relative newcomers. Most are individuals and families and not corporate owners. A significant group inherited their land and an overlapping set of owners wish to pass on their land to children, the majority of whom believe their children will use the land in the same way. Across all regions, there is a fair amount of consistency in owners’ propensity to have sold or transferred portions of their land in the past, in their general land market participation, and in their future plans for their land. The survey showed two significant differences from previous empirical studies of landowners: first, geographic location within the fringe was found to be less meaningful to predicting owners’ identities and behaviors, and there were few owners who appeared to fit the description of land “speculators,” I discuss possible reasons for these discrepancies between previous work and the current research in the paper.

Despite the regional similarities in ownership patterns, however, regional differences do emerge in the data. To understand these, I then present an original framework of owners’ interests in their fringe land (with interests defined as the benefits owners receive from possessing land, including economic return on land, use of land for specific activities, and emotional fulfillment from enjoyment of the property, specific uses, or ownership itself). Applying this framework to the survey data, I argue that owners’ interest profiles vary by region and account for differences in behaviors and owners’ stated motivations for their behaviors. In particular, I provide evidence for the relative strength of exchange interests in Portland and Sacramento, legacy interests in Charlotte, and use interests in Austin. The findings imply that different policy approaches may be needed by location, depending on regional interests and the interests of specific groups of owners (such as farmers), in order to motivate owners to participate in conservation programs or other voluntary programs aimed at managing growth or environmental protection. I conclude with a discussion of potential avenues for future research.