Bair Ranch preservation gets another $600,000 | VailDaily.com

Bair Ranch preservation gets another $600,000

Veronica Whitney

The Bair Ranch conservation deal may be one step closer to completion.

The board of directors of the state lottery-funded Great Outdoors Colorado Program, or GOCO, gave another $600,000 to help purchase a $5 million development ban on 4,300 acres of the Glenwood Canyon ranch. The federal government, through the Bureau of Land Management, has already committed $1.5 million to the project.

This is the second time GOCO has granted money to the deal, which is yet to be finalized. Last spring, GOCO committed $400,000 to purchase a conservation easement that would legally bar future development on the ranch that straddles Eagle and Garfield counties.

“We’re really excited. This gives the project tremendous momentum,” Cindy Cohagen of the Eagle Valley Land Trust said Friday. The land trust is in charge of the local fund raising for the project.

“This additional contribution helps to get much closer to our ultimate fund-raising goal,” Cohagen said. “Most importantly, it underscores the importance of this deal on a statewide level.”

The project has hit some snags, though conservationists say

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that’s not uncommon.

Although the money was made available this summer to purchase the $5 million conservation easement, there’s still no contract between Craig and Legrand Bair – the owners of the ranch – and the Conservation Fund, which is spearheading the conservation effort.

In October, a deadline came and went without a closing between the Bair brothers. Craig was going to buy his brother out with money from the conservation easement. And the Eagle Valley Land Trust has postponed a fund-raiser because there’s no contract yet for the easement.

The deal, which was originally going to close in October, has been delayed possibly until the first half of next year, said Tom Macy, of The Conservation Fund.

“This extra money is a major step and a vote of confidence,” Macy said. “And it’s unusual that GOCO funds a project twice. They gave us money last spring and the (Eagle Valley Land Trust) went back to them and got the $600,000.”

Cohagen said she is now at the starting line of her fund-raising campaign.

“We’re waiting for the final piece of the contract,” she said. “This contribution will speed up the fund raising and the closing of the deal.”

For county Commissioner Arn Menconi, who in July approved a $2 million contribution to the project, the new grant is great news.

“It looks phenomenal,” Menconi says. “The advisory committee has been put in place and the more they learn about the project, the better.”

Menconi was referring to the county’s Open Space Advisory Committee, which was created by taxpayers last November to purchase open space throughout Eagle County.

But one issue still to be dealt with is the arrangement between the Bair brothers.

“We’re not going to talk about negotiations with the Bair family while they are in progress,” Macy said. “I think things are going very well.”

The Eagle Valley Land Trust will be in charge of the fund raising the remaining funds. “GOCO’s willingness to contribute twice in this project shows the importance that it places on easements as a way to protect land,” Macy said.

“GOCO grants are running 90 percent towards easement vs. 10 percent to buy the land outright,” Macy said.

Many conservationists see easements as cost-effective. Such deals also keep the land on county tax rolls.

“You can’t buy every ranch out there,” Macy said. “Bair Ranch, for example, is appraised at $17 million.”

Sidebar Vote-approved open-space board to start work

Although Eagle County has committed $2 million to preserve the Bair Ranch, funds for that contribution could end up coming from the new Open Space tax instead of the county’s general fund.

The Eagle County commissioners approved last month a 13-member advisory committee that will review projects for the Open Space tax, which will generate about $3 million a year. The commissioners, however, will have a final say on what projects will be funded.

Ron Wolfe, and Avon councilman selected to represent the town on the open space advisory committee said he would support a contribution to the Bair Ranch preservation deal.

“The advisory committee needs to evaluate all options,” Wolfe said. “I’d like to see the property purchased, but I don’t think it’s feasible. The easement makes it possible to protect it and release the county of any stewardship responsibility.”

But Wolfe said a $2 million contribution – what conservationists have requested from the county – is too much.

“Taxpayers shouldn’t put more than $1 million in this project,” he said. “Since there’s no public access and it’s in a remote location.”

Andy Wiessner, an advisory committee member from Vail, said it would be hard to argue that the Bair Ranch isn’t a top priority.

“There’s nothing bigger and better than the Bair Ranch,” said Wiessner, who is also a member of the Eagle Valley Land Trust board of directors, which is also involved in fund raising for the Bair Ranch deal. “And it’s also the most significant wildlife project. Plus, it’s a viable project.”

But Wolfe said the county needs to protect open space between the towns and closer to population centers.

“We don’t want to see Vail merging into Avon without open space,” Wolfe said. “We need to leave more money to be spent on more critical space.”

Eagle County Commissioner Tom Stone said he hopes the advisory committee will bring the commissioners a list of possibilities.

“Bair Ranch among them,” Stone said.

The Open Space Advisory Committee will review projects and make recommendations to the commissioners who will give final approval. Although the committee will meet for the first time Thursday, it won’t make decide on any projects until its members come up with rules, regulations and criteria to prioritize projects, said Walter Mathews, deputy county attorney. The deadline for that is March 17.

Veronica Whitney can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 454, or at vwhitney@vaildaily.com.