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WHAT'S THE BEST WAY TO SAVE OPEN LANDS?

Utah's best farmland, open spaces and wildlife romping grounds are being gobbled up by housing and commercial development.

Nobody disputes that.But how to curb the onslaught is still a matter of debate.

Should government zone land so it can't be developed? Should government buy the land outright and set it aside? Or should it simply provide tax incentives and tools, like conservation easements? And how should it all be funded - by taxpayers or privately?

The Land Conservation Task Force, formed by the 1995 Legislature to study the issue, still hasn't answered any of these questions.

But it has two more meetings before the governor's "Land, Water and Transportation Summit" in November. The task force plans to have a policy recommendation by then.

Though the task force came to no conclusions in its latest meeting Wednesday, its members argued about philosophy as well as the best approach to saving lands.

The task force's co-chairman, Rep. Evan Olsen, R-Young Ward, made it clear he's in favor of a "bottom-up" approach, leaving preservation decisions to local governments.

But Rep. Mary Carlson, D-Salt Lake City, said the task force would be naive to believe that local governments could find the resources to protect sensitive lands from development.

"I feel very strongly that this is an issue that everyone in the state benefits from . . . I'd like to look at statewide funding," she said, noting that the states with the most protected farmland are also those that have spent a large amount of state money. Maryland, for example, has spent $10 million, resulting in the preservation of some 110,000 acres since 1977. During the same period, New Hampshire, which has spent no state funds, has preserved only 8,500 acres.

Agriculture Commissioner Cary Peterson and Sen. Al Mansell, R-Sandy, sparred over what is the "highest and best use" of land.

Peterson argued that for every tax dollar generated by agricultural land, it costs governments just 33 cents to provide services to that land. Subdivisions, by contrast, cost $1.25 for every tax dollar generated.

Mansell, a real-estate broker, wondered how the people living in the houses and paying income tax figured into the equation. He also wondered where houses should be built.

The task force's next meeting is Sept. 6.