A reluctant no to open space | VailDaily.com

A reluctant no to open space

Don Rogers

The Eagle Valley Land Trust – the group that works hard to preserve private pockets of wildlife habitat, pasture, and “green” land along the Eagle River – simply does not receive enough in donations to make a real dent in the open space realm.

So proponents propose a public means to raise an estimated $103 million over the next two decades. High Country neighbors Summit, Pitkin and Routt counties employ taxes to acquire open space parcels. Eagle County voters are asked on the Nov. 5 ballot to approve a property tax increase of $14 per $100,000 property value for a fund the county commissioners will control specifically for open space in the county.

Is there that much private land in the county that would qualify as worthy open space? Yes. In the higher country, there are parcels such as the Gilman land, Castle Peak Ranch, the state school land above Edwards. There’s ranchland up the Colorado River, Bair Ranch, and up Gypsum Valley. There’s bottom land along the Eagle River such as at Wolcott, and along the Fryingpan River in Basalt. These are the types of private property the open space fund could help preserve.

This is a better way to deal with open space issues than the proposals, such as Amendment 24 two years ago, to use regulation to freeze land owners out from getting fair value for their land if they chose to sell it. Land owners would have another option than selling out for development if the county were able to negotiate to buy their land or set up conservation easements.

True, 80 percent of the county already is open space in the form of public wildland. The pieces that would qualify for open space values are pockets, some quite sizeable, within national forest or BLM land and, of course, the lower elevation reaches where we mainly live.

Eagle County would hardly be “Boulderized” with a fund set up to purchase this land. Real estate already is pricey and will remain that way whatever happens with this proposal.

There are difficulties with the proposal, though. The town of Vail has for decades used its real estate transfer tax to buy open land and has no more to purchase – now that fully one-third of the town is devoted to open space. Basalt has a portion of its sales tax devoted to open space. Neither community sounds particularly eager to contribute to another open space tax. Vail asked to opt out, but it can’t.

A countywide real estate transfer tax devoted to open space would make for a dandy solution, but counties cannot impose that tax. The open space tax proponents were unsuccessful in trying to get the myriad of metro districts and other municipal entities to sign off on a special open space district. To get something workable on the ballot, it came down to a countywide solution.

Possibly the biggest obstacle to the tax proposal is plain bad timing. With Vail Resorts and most municipalities slicing their budgets, the stock market reflecting anxiousness among investors, the consumer confidence indexes tracking downward, the climate is not particularly favorable for the handful tax hike questions populating the ballot. Economic boosters and water storage improvements seem to be more on voters’ minds than the more ephemeral – yet real – value of open space. Too bad.

While this plan appears workable and generally reasonable, we remain concerned about the amount of money the proposal aims to raise. A list of possible parcels to acquire comes to $100 million to $108 million, buttressed with a couple of high dollar properties that could well be protected in other ways than purchase, we believe. The question yet hangs if the open space fund truly needs as much as it is estimated to bring in.

The proponents say polling has shown that the voters would be willing to part with a property tax increase of 1.5 mills, and that is what they asked for. This suggests to us that the group is seeking as much money as it thinks the voters might pass, rather than identifying properties with a solid chance of success and asking the voters for a more specific amount to accomplish the mission. “Have money, will spend” is the axiom of our concern here.

We recognize that open space beyond the scrub and national forest highlands is of great value to Eagle County and its future, even if the sentiment can be difficult to quantify.

The county, municipalities, Land Trust and other agencies must continue and even redouble efforts to protect key open space when opportunities such as the East Brush Creek addition to Sylvan Lake.

This proposal is a close call for us, and the one we’ve wrangled over the most as we’ve gone about forming recommendations for the ballot box. The need is there, the plan is reasonable, but we’re not prepared to support it at this time.

While we may well be guilty of making the perfect the enemy of the good, we believe that more thought needs to be given to Vail and Basalt, which already have open space taxes. A tax proposal needs to be more reflective of the cost of land and conservation easements for parcels that the county is most likely to acquire, and ideally not suggestive of going after as much as the proponents think they can collect.

And finally, timing may well be everything. If the voters reject the tax this year, by all means fine tune the proposal and come back to the voters when the economic outlook is more favorable. That may well be next fall.

Two of the three current county commissioners have endorsed the proposal, and the third, Tom Stone, would be at least willing to put the measure on the ballot again. The challengers for Stone’s seat, Gerry Sandberg and Laurie Bower, have expressed support for the proposal. We don’t think this proposal must be a now or never deal.

Our recommendation for the proponents is not to give up if their proposal doesn’t work out this time.

With luck the economy will be in better shape, the proposal more thought out, and the timing better for a public commitment to open space the voters will get behind.

Support Local Journalism