Eagle County Open Space program hires new director, vows to maintain partnership philosophy
EAGLE — Fifteen years after its creation, the Eagle County Open Space program will finish up 2017 with a popular and high-profile land deal, a nearly empty bank account and a new director.
Toby Sprunk, who has served as Eagle County Open Space director for the past six years, is leaving his post at the end of the month. Diane Mauriello, formerly of the Eagle County Attorney’s Office, is stepping into the job. Noting that she was heavily involved in the open space program throughout her tenure, Sprunk said the transition should be nearly seamless.
When Sprunk came to the county, the open space program was already eight years old. During that period, the operation was run through the county planning commission and the county’s Open Space Advisory Committee, with part-time staff assistance from the county’s planning department.
Sprunk said in the early days, conservation-easement deals brokered with the assistance of the Eagle Valley Land Trust comprised the biggest accomplishments for the program. Those were the days of the Bair Ranch and Gates Ranch agreements.
But by 2011, the program was shifting to seek out deals that featured public-access components. Shortly before he arrived, the county inked agreements for public access along the Colorado River.
“We wanted to broaden the portfolio,” Sprunk said. “We know that not every project is going to excite every person.”
“I think that’s the strength of the program — its variety,” Mauriello said.
And as the variety of land deals broadened, its partnerships increased.
Plenty of partners
Sprunk said he has a spreadsheet that details the various open space purchases the county has accomplished. That document includes space to detail the various organizations that contributed to each deal. These days, he said, the document has become unwieldy.
From the town of Eagle’s contributions to the Hardscrabble Ranch purchase to the Rocky Mountain Sports Riders’ assistance with the Dry Lake proposal, the program has lots of partners. That’s Sprunk’s proudest accomplishment.
“There is a certain mojo with a community effort,” Sprunk said. “We have partnered with a lot of different people around the valley on deals to get them done.”
He cited the Walking Mountains Science Center project in Avon as an example. The center sits on a 3 ½-acre site, and the property around it was slated for residential development. While the town of Avon couldn’t put money into the deal, the community did contribute adjacent land, which provided a 103-acre parcel.
“The primary beneficiary of the deal is every kid who goes to a program at the science center,” Sprunk said.
Some open space deals are vastly popular with a certain part of the Eagle County population, only to be soundly panned by others. That means the program is probably doing what it should be doing, Sprunk said. But he noted projects that promote active recreation are among the best received.
“The reason people live here is to hike, ski, run rivers and be outside,” he said.
Hopefully, there are more opportunities to pursue those passions because of the efforts of the county’s open-space program, Sprunk said. As he prepares to turn over the operation, he believes there are still many great opportunities in this valley.
For the remainder of 2017, the open space program will be in build-up-the-bank-account mode. The open space program is funded by a dedicated 1.5 mill levy tax on property, approved by county residents in 2002. That mill levy generates approximately $4 million annually. The county is also negotiating with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management for the BLM to purchase from the county the State Bridge and Two Bridges Colorado River access sites, which could generate around $1.3 million in revenue.
The Hardscrabble Ranch purchase was one of the biggest deals ever for the program, and it took the lion’s share of the existing open space funds. The $15.5 million deal included roughly $9 million from the open space fund, $3.1 million from Great Outdoors Colorado (Colorado Lottery) money, $600,000 from the town of Eagle and private fundraising.
“It is amazing all the people who participated,” Mauriello said. “It’s a testament to the work.”
That work is ever-changing. A potential open space deal no one knew about yesterday could pop up today and because it has a funding source, Eagle County is in a position to pursue such opportunities. But the property tax funding for open space has a sunset. The tax will expire in 2025 if voters do not approve an extension.
Along with working through the details that make up a deal, Sprunk and Mauriello said the program has extensive outreach and education goals.
“There is still a lot of people who don’t know what we have done,” Sprunk said.
As he prepares to hand over the open space administration, Sprunk offered some simple advice to Mauriello and everyone else who works with the program.
“Have fun. It is a fun job. There is nothing more gratifying than going by a piece of property that you have helped to protect.”