Like many Cook County residents at this time of year, I have traveled a good distance south to spend a week being renewed by a beach and a hammock before the busy summer season gets under way. I'm on the Caribbean Island of Anguilla which is the island farthest east in the British West Indies.
Aside from the obvious difference in climate, Anguilla and Cook County have quite a bit in common. Both areas have beautiful coastline and lush, remote and rugged interior areas. All the natural beauty supports a vital tourism industry that dominates both economies. Both areas have a deep history of commercial fishing that continues today. Both areas, as it turns out are facing deep government budget deficits and are struggling to balance the twin pains of service cut backs and tax increases. Tourism both here and at home have been slower for the last two years and the real estate market has been very soft. However, tourism revenues this year have been up about 10% in both areas, but still not back to historic levels.
One of the most discussed issues here on the island is figuring out how much development is appropriate. Many of the arguments would be very familiar to Cook County residents. When does the intensity of development start to destroy what attracts tourists to visit here in the first place? For instance, the airport, which is actually on the neighboring island of St Marten, has been rebuilt and modernized over the last several years. It is now a small version of every modern airport, with lots of polished steel, glass and crowd handling design. When I commented on this to my taxi driver, his comment was that everyone hates the new airport. He went on to say that both tourists and locals loved the old, funky airport that was a much better representation of the local culture and traditions.
One issue they don't have down here is the management of public lands. Only a small fraction of the land on the island is in public hands, as opposed to Cook County where more than 90% of the land is public. Down here, they establish rules for development that are designed to grow the economy - which make good sense at first - but it becomes very difficult to control development as time goes on, running the risk of overdevelopment and the degradation of the quality of life for the full time residents.
Historically, the main argument in Cook County has been that the public lands hold us back. That the government has "grabbed" the land, crippling our tax base and keeping us in poverty. If only we were free to develop the public land like private land, money would flow in and life would be ideal. We've seen a little revival of this outdated thinking in the recent initiative by some county commissioners to somehow forbid the conversion of any more land from private to public in Cook County. This is a bad idea. Public lands are a huge part of the quality of life here in Cook County. For locals and tourists alike, the opportunities for solitude, scenery, wildlife viewing, four wheeling, hiking, boating, canoeing, hunting, fishing and so on, are the foundation of our life style. On top of this we have the value of breathing clean air and drinking clean water. We take this for granted, but it is a real and growing problem around the world.
It is often argued that more private land would increase the tax base and lower everyone's taxes. The reality is that under even ideal conditions, the development of private land increases the need for public services equal to the amount of tax revenue it produces. In many cases, it will actually cost more than the taxes it brings in, resulting in a larger tax burden on existing homes and businesses.
It is also somewhat arrogant to try to tie the hands of future county boards. I for one would like to see any issues surrounding the conversion of land from public to private, or visa versa, decided on the merits, rather than on a blanket decision made without the facts at hand.
It really boils down to what kind of world we want to live in. It is a constant tension between short term reward and long term wisdom. I recommend that everyone hop into a hammock and give it some serious thought. In Anguilla and in Cook County, we all need to keep talking, thinking and working together to provide a better world for our descendants.