County officials cautious on Bair Ranch
The county commissioners will have a final say on whether to use part of the open space tax towards the $5 million conservation easement on the ranch which straddles Eagle and Garfield counties.
Tom Macy of The Conservation Fund, in charge of the easement, said he will be applying in the next weeks for county funding through the open space tax. The new Open Space Advisory Committee will recommend the commissioners which projects should be funded with the open space property tax passed by voters in 2002, which is expected to collect $3 million annually starting this year.
“The project will go through the open space process,” said county Commissioner Michael Gallagher. “There are benefits to the county (by protecting the Bair Ranch), but I reserve judgment until we get a recommendation (from the Open Space Advisory Committee).”
Macy said he’s hoping to get the $2 million that county commissioners approved last year for the project. In December, because The Conservation Fund didn’t have the Bairs yet under contract, Eagle County commissioners withdrew the $2 million contribution they had approved in the summer toward the deal – Stone voted against it. The commissioners then referred the project to the Eagle County Open Space Advisory Committee.
Before they are ready to evaluate and recommend projects for the tax, the committee needs to give the commissioners a set of evaluating criteria for potential projects. The commissioners are scheduled to vote on the criteria on Feb. 17.
“I’ve been studying this project for a year now and I’m excited to partner with The Conservation Fund, GOCO, BLM and the Eagle Valley Land Trust.” said county Commissioner Arn Menconi.
The federal government, through the Bureau of Land Management, has committed $1.5 million. The state lottery-funded Great Outdoors Colorado Program gave $400,000 and then an additional $600,000 to help purchase the easement.
The Eagle Valley Land Trust will begin raising $600,000 in private donations this week, said Cindy Cohagen, the Land Trust’s executive director.
“The Conservation Fund has done a fantastic job in pulling together one of the state’s most important jewels of open space protection,” he said. “We’ve had a year of education on the Bair Ranch and the values of preserving it as open space. It has been the only parcel that has been seriously discuss as an a opportunity.”
But Tom Stone, chairman of the Board of County Commissioners, said he wants to give the Bair Ranch a fair hearing like any other file.
“If any other commissioners are prejudging the file, I think they are acting irresponsibly,” Stone said. “All projects should have equal representation. I’m not for expediting a project. We expedited it before (in July, when the commissioners approved the $2 million contribution), I’m not going to be rushed a second time.”
Ron Wolfe, chairman of the Open Space Advisory Committee, said the committee most likely will evaluate the application for the Bair Ranch immediately.
Macy has said the $2 million from the county is instrumental for the deal to go through.
“I guess I have to look at all the information,” said Tom Edwards, a member of the open Space Advisory Committee who also sits on the Eagle Valley Land Trust board. “This is something that the land trust has supported, but I need to hear the applicants and review the information when it comes to the committee.”
The $5 million would also purchase outright more than 500 acres of the ranch along the Eagle River. The 4,300 acres that would be put under the easement would be protected from future development but stay under Craig Bair’s ownership. The riverside 500 acres would be owned by the public, Macy said.
Veronica Whitney can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 454 or at email@example.com.