Guest columnist: Eagle County open space tax a rip-off |

Guest columnist: Eagle County open space tax a rip-off

Susan Nottingham
Vail CO, Colorado

Is anyone really surprised with the recent headlines such as “Colorado conservation deals flawed” and “Most conservation easements reviewed show problems”?

The only real surprise is that someone is finally waking up to the fact that these “deals” are not as great as we have been lead to believe.

Conservation easement appraisals are, by nature, overvalued. They have to be in order to offer the landowner enough of an economic incentive to give up control of their land. Conservation easement appraisers make the “extraordinary assumption” that the land is already developed and appraise it as developed land. There is no accounting for the cost of engineering, land planning, surveying, or developing infrastructure and utilities.

We, the taxpayers, are paying recipients of open space dollars for doing all this when they have not spent a dime to do so.

In the case of the recent Gates Ranch easement, this “extraordinary assumption” is extra-extraordinary. The Gates Ranch appraisal and the Bair Ranch appraisal and, I suppose, the McNulty Ranch and Grange Ranch, all used a number of other conservation easement purchases as “comparables” to establish their value. How many of those “comparables” are those that have been recently reviewed by the Internal Revenue Service and found to be “overvalued”?

Now we have the grossly inflated and overvalued Gates Ranch appraisal to use as a “comparable” to justify overvaluations on future easements.

Our current Open Space Advisory Committee and Board of County Commissioners never met a deal they did not like. They make the assumption that because appraisals are done by Great Outdoors Colorado-approved appraisers that they could not possibly be wrong. Consequently, all they (the commissioners and the advisory committee) are doing is handing out rubber stamps and blank checks to every needy rancher that comes along.

I think that the current probe by the Internal Revenue Service and Colorado State Division of Real Estate is proving that to be the wrong tactic.

How many Eagle County conservation easements are included in the ongoing probe? We probably will never know. I understand that some of these easement grantors (statewide) are going to have to pay back some of the money that they received for the tax credits. This is an estimated $85 million.

How many hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars have been overpaid on the overvalued purchase price? Will any of that money be recovered by GOCO or the State Division of Wildlife or any number of tax-dollar supported organizations that buy conservation easements?

Will our own open space program recover any?

Make no mistake about it, Eagle County taxpayers are being ripped-off ” big time ” by the open space tax and again by the state agencies that provide public monies for the purchase of conservation easements.

The 3-percent open space tax in Eagle County passed by only 51 votes in 2002. I believe that most people who voted for it thought that they would be buying parks and recreation areas that they could actually use, not bailing out ranchers needing to “settle their estate”.

The only way to eliminate this tax is for the Board of County Commissioners to place the question of the open space tax on the ballot again and let the voters decide if they want it to continue or not.

The current Board of Commissioners should be willing to put that question on the ballot of the 2008 general election.

If the home rule question deserved a second chance, this issue does as well, especially since the taxpayers have had an opportunity to see just how their money is being spent.

If they do not put this question to the voters again, we should elect only those candidates who will be willing to do so.

Susan Nottingham is a Bond resident. E-mail comments about this column to

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