Columnist: Eagle County open space hard to prioritze
Vail, CO Colorado
After five years and $14 million acquiring six qualified and varied open space projects, the Eagle County Open Space Program is at a crossroads. While the program to date has been fiscally prudent and preserved a large number of acres of beautiful wildlife habitat in the county, some critics are clamoring for more acquisitions on the valley floor (like the Eagle River Preserve Project) with fewer acres acquired and total public access.
So, is it time to acquire more land on the Valley floor with total public access?
There is no question that valley-floor acquisitions are very popular among voters and are totally within the flexible selection criteria of the current Eagle County Open Space Program. In fact, if the commissioners so decided, they could announce that their policy priority was now acquiring properties on the valley floor and direct the Open Space Advisory Committee to focus exclusively on projects that met this criteria. So why hasn’t this happened? As it turns out, there are a number of obstacles to pursuing this policy:
– Land in the development corridors of the valley is scarce and astronomically priced by developers seeking full market price for their land (no conservation easements possible here!). The only such project of this type to date, the Eagle River Preserve, cost the county $83,000 an acre even with partners, as opposed to the ranch properties like the Gates Ranch ($2,700/acre or Bair Ranch $716/acre for conservation easements). So the county taxpayer may be looking at paying anywhere from 4-10 times as much per acre for valley floor projects.
– The Open Space Advisory Committee can only consider land deals that apply for county open space funds. Property owners on the valley floors never apply for county funds because they are hoping for a much bigger purchase price from a developer. So the valley floor projects never even get to the table. The Eagle River Preserve project was brought to the county only through exceptional circumstances ” through the visionary initiative of the Vail Valley Foundation which decided to acquire the property with private dollars and partnership with Eagle County and the Eagle Valley Land Trust.
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– In considering the deals on its table, the Open Space Advisory Committee and the commissioners have had primarily ranch projects (Bair, Grange, McNulty and Gates) brought to them by ranch owners seeking conservation easements in partnership with the area Land Trusts. These deals have solidly met the selection criteria and reflected the public desire to preserve the Western heritage in our county. Since conservation easements cost much less than outright land purchase these properties were cost effective deals for the county.
– Land available on the valley floor would need an entirely different process of acquisition for the county where the county would actively go out and make a bid on a targeted property. With the bid arranged, the county would have to move quickly to identify funding partners and close the deal within the year. With any delays, the land might be sold or priced even higher by the time the county had the funds to purchase. The county should ideally seek bonding for the open space program to be able to purchase land now while it is available.
– Scarce available land on the valley floor is also a prime candidate for affordable housing, and with two commissioner seats up for election in November, affordable housing is the top priority for all commissioners and commissioner candidates. Thus the county priority of open space on the valley floor directly competes with the county priority or affordable housing on the valley floor. If a valley floor parcel becomes available for county purchase, should the commissioners purchase the land for open space or affordable housing?
What is the best use of our scarce, accessible land on the valley floor? That is a policy decision the commissioners must determine and communicate clearly to the Open Space Advisory Committee and the area Land Trusts serving as brokers for land deals with the county. Then they and the voters need to accept the tradeoffs with each choice.