County open-space tax goes to the voters
Eagle County commissioners Tuesday unanimously approved a resolution submitting the issue to the ballot for the November election.
“I hope this ballot initiative passes and creates environmental health,” said Commissioner Arn Menconi.
If approved, the request, proposed by the Eagle Valley Citizens for Open Space, will raise the countywide tax levy 1.5 mills – an increase of about $14 per $100,000 assessed value of a house – raising $2.9 million per year. The amount of the increase depends on whether the commissioners decide to increase the tax rate this year, said Jack Ingstad, county administrator.
Because the county’s income comes from property and sales tax and fees and permits, that decision depends on how much money the county raises this year, he said.
Michael Gallagher, chairman of the Board of County Commissioners, said it’s good to let people choose.
“I will vote “yes’,” Gallagher said. “We (Eagle County) have spent millions on open space, but there’s more to buy.”
Diana Cecala, a coordinator with the Eagle Valley Citizens for Open Space, said the initiative has plenty of public support.
“A recent survey shows that 60 percent of those polled approved of the 1.5-mill county-wide tax levy increase,” she said.
The survey, conducted by Public Opinion Strategies of Denver, included 360 people throughout the county.
“The open-space fund will help achieve balanced growth in the county and help preserve the most important priorities identified in our survey – water, wildlife and our western heritage,” Cecala said.
The citizens coalition would work together with the Eagle Valley Land Trust to identify parcels for preservation. The Open Space Fund would be administered by Eagle County officials.
In a letter to Gallagher, Vail Town Manager Bob McLaurin asked that Vail be exempted from the tax.
“It is our belief that a county wide assessment to purchase open space is unfair to those communities that have purchased open space previously,” McLaurin said.
The initiative could end up being a double tax for towns like Vail and Basalt, said county Commissioner Tom Stone, because they already have a tax for open space. Over the past 20 years, Vail has purchased more than 1,300 acres of open space via a real estate transfer tax, or RETT.
“The Town of Vail is a huge proponent of open space,” McLaurin said.
“If we can’t be exempted, it is our desire to seek reimbursement for some of the previous purchases that we made in order to make sure the tax is equitably assessed.”
Tom Steinberg, who was on the Vail Town Council when it passed the transfer tax, said Vail already owns a third of the private land in the Gore Creek Valley.
“There’s nothing else to buy in Vail,” he said. “To avoid a double tax, I would suggest that the town of Vail reassigns the transfer tax to some other use, like the general fund. That way it can reduce its tax levy.”
If the tax doesn’t pass, that doesn’t mean the county can’t preserve open space, Stone said.
The county already considers specific requests to purchase open space, he said. Four years ago, for example, it put $1.5 million into preserving East Brush Creek.
“There’s no question that the county has supported open space,” Cecala said. “But in the case of the Berry Creek 5th, the 50 acres dedicated to open space are only deed-restricted. That means the next county commissioners could change that. What we’re asking for is a permanent conservation easement.”
Gallagher said he would be interested in preserving ranchland.
“By giving ranchers money for a conservation easement, they can keep ranching,” he said.
Preserving open space also is good for tourism, added Steinberg, president of the Eagle Valley Land Trust and a member of the Eagle Valley Citizens for Open Space.
“If you come to Eagle County and you see wall-to-wall construction, you’re not going to come back,” he said. “We (Vail) wouldn’t have Ford Park if we hadn’t bought it years ago. More than 20 condominiums were slated to go there.”
On the ballot:
SHALL EAGLE COUNTY TAXES BE INCREASED IN 2003 UP TO A MAXIMUM AMOUNT OF $2,989, 525 AND ANNUALLY THEREAFTER UP TO A MAXIMUM AMOUNT OF $7,000,000 ANNUALLY THROUGH 2025, SUCH TAXES TO CONSIST OF AN AD VALOREM TAX MILL LEVY IMPOSED ON ALL TAXABLE PROPERTY OF THE COUNTY AT A RATE NOT IN EXCESS OF 1.5 MILLS, TO BE USED FOR THE PURPOSE OF ACQUIRING, MAINTAINING, OR PERMANENTLY PRESERVING OPEN SPACE IN EAGLE COUNTY SUCH AS: PRESERVING WILDLIFE HABITAT, PROTECTING WORKING FARMS AND RANCHES, CONSERVING SCENIC LANDSCAPES AND VISTAS, PROTECTING WETLANDS AND FLOODPLAINS, PROVIDING PUBLIC ACCESS POINTS TO RIVERS AND STREAMS, AND SERVING FUTURE VOTER-APPROVED DEBT FOR THE ABOVE STATED PURPOSE; AND SHALL ALL REVENUE EXPENDITURES BE MADE BY THE BOARD OF COUNTY COMMISSIONERS AFTER CONSIDERING THE RECOMMENDATIONS OF A CITIZENS ADVISORY COMMITTEE; AND IN CONNECTION THEREWITH, AS A VOTER-APPROVED REVENUE CHANGE, SHALL THE PROCEEDS OF SUCH TAXES AND INVESTMENT INCOME THEREON BE COLLECTED AND SPENT BY THE COUNTY IN 2003 AND IN EACH YEAR THEREAFTER, WITHOUT REGARD TO ANY SPENDING, REVENUE-RAISING OR OTHER LIMITATION CONTAINED WITHIN ARTICLE X, SECTION 20 OF THE COLORADO CONSTITUTION, OR ANY OTHER LAW AS IT CURRENTLY EXISTS OR AS IT MAY BE AMENDED IN THE FUTURE AND WITHOUT LIMITING IN ANY YEAR THE AMOUNT OF OTHER REVENUES THAT ME BE COLLECTED AND SPENT BY THE COUNTY?
Veronica Whitney can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 454, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.