Bair Ranch conservation clouds up
Since the summer, when county commissioners approved in a 2-1 vote a $2 million contribution to the purchase of a $5 million conservation easement on 4,300 acres of the Glenwood Canyon ranch, Commissioner Tom Stone has questioned aspects of the deal, including whether it’s appropriate to use taxpayer dollars to protect a working ranch that won’t have public access.
And Arrowhead resident Steve Morris, a former candidate for the board of commissioners, is asking the county to take no action on the already-approved motion to contribute funds that will be added to state and federal grants. In a letter to the county, an attorney for Morris suggests the county’s financial commitment to the deal is a violation of both state statutes and the county’s own open space funding regulation.
The Bair Ranch conservation easement, a deal that would bar further development on the ranch, hasn’t closed yet.
“I wished I knew what it was at the heart of the controversy,” said Cindy Cohagen of the Eagle Valley Land Trust, which is trying to raise more than $1 million locally to put toward the deal. “I don’t know if there is a political undertone and I don’t want to speculate. The community has issues with this, there is misinformation and a lack of information about these type of projects and their true long-term value to the community.
“In this case, we have the opportunity to protect 4,300 acres in one of the highest growing communities in the state,” she says.
Commissioner Arn Menconi, who with Commissioner Michael Gallagher voted for the $2 million contribution, said preserving Bair Ranch is a complicated project that can’t be rushed.
“It has different partners and the land is in different counties,” Menconi said. “Right now we don’t realize how grand and complicated this is, but 20 years from now we will be able to look back at all the purchases we’ve made with open space dollars and be grateful that we have a diversity.”
The ranch straddles the borders of Eagle and Garfield counties.
Next year, the county will start collecting a new open space tax that should raise about $3 million a year. But this year, money for the Bair Ranch deal could come from the county’s existing spending accounts.
Stone, who also cited difficult economic times and a lack of benefits for the residents of Eagle County in opposing the deal, said he is mystified why the county still doesn’t have a final draft of the easement.
“What is the conservation easement? What are the details?” Stone said. “They led us to believe that they had all the details and we don’t. Nor do we have a closing date. If I’m going to buy a home, I want to know exactly what I’m buying and when.”
Tom Macy of the Conservation Fund, the organization writing the easement, couldn’t be reached for the story, but Cohagen said she expects the closing to be in December.
Although Eagle County already has some 2,000 acres under conservation easements, Bair Ranch would be the first time county taxpayers money will be used to buy the development rights to a working ranch. Public access is expected to be restricted to 512 acres of the ranch being bought by the Bureau of Land Management.
“This isn’t the first time there’s been a private-public partnership to protect open space,” Cohagen said.
Conservation of the East Vail Waterfall was possible thanks to Vail’s contribution of $300,000, money from the town’s Real Estate Transfer Tax. Avon has also committed $300,000 for a conservation deal on the west side of town that is still in the works. And Eagle County put up $1.5 million and the town of Eagle contributed $500,000 towards the Sylvan Lake State Park project
“Conservation easements are cost effective,” Cohagen said. “They are much more cost effective than fee acquisition. For example, you can protect land with an easement for $5 million rather than buy it for $16 million. Also, by putting on a conservation easement, the land remains in private ownership. That means it stays on tax rolls and the owner continues to be responsible for the maintenance.”
For Cohagen, Routt County is a model when it comes to protecting working ranches. In the past 10 years, nonprofit organizations within Routt County have protected more than 40,000 acres of land. The Yampa Valley Land Trust was responsible for more than half of the deals.
“A significant number of those easements are on working ranches,” said Susan Otis of the Yampa Valley Land Trust. “And some of them were done with taxpayers’ money.”
The money came from a specific Routt County Purchase of Development Rights Fund. Routt County has a property tax that goes to open land protection, which raises about $600,000 a year.
“The first time you do anything is always difficult,” said Andy Weissner, an environmental activist in Vail. “Once, the first easement or two are done, others will say, “This is a cheap way to preserve land.'”
And, Otis said, when it comes to open space protection, people shouldn’t be concerned with what they’re getting out of the deals.
“Wanting to protect land to be able to walk on it is a very egocentric stand,” she said. “They should be happy that they can see this space protected forever. Also, open space provides significant wildlife habitat.”
Still, Stone said it was irresponsible to make a decision on Bair Ranch without all the facts.
“I don’t understand where the urgency came from,” he said. “In the future, before I would ever approve spending a penny of taxpayer money, I would like to have all the details first, not second.
“This process has done more harm to preserving property than I could ever imagine and it is the fault of the Conservation Fund that they don’t have a deal,” he added.
To Menconi, those opposing the Bair Ranch easement are harming the spirit of what voters asked for when they approved an open space tax last year.
“There are a few people who are trying not to allow democracy to prevail,” Menconi said. “There was a vote for the open space, there was a vote of the county commissioners on the $2 million. Representative government has accepted what democracy stands for.”
Cohagen said she hopes the controversy won’t scare away other people interested in preserving their land with an easement.
Meanwhile, Craig Bair, owner of the Bair Ranch, has been looking at other alternatives for his land, including building a recreational vehicle park, a move the conservation easement would prevent.
“We still offer conservation easements as a tool for property owners to preserve and protect the value of their properties,” Cohagen said. “I hope property owners don’t shy away.”
Veronica Whitney can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 454, or at email@example.com.