How much open space do you want? |

How much open space do you want?

Daily file photoThe Gates Ranch in northern Eagle County was one of the major purchases for which open space taxes were used.

EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado ” Each week, the Vail Daily will publish a Q and A with the four Eagle County commissioner candidates.

Democrat and incumbent Commissioner Peter Runyon will be running against Republican and former Commissioner Dick Gustafson for the upvalley seat. Democrat Jon Stavney will be running against Republican Debbie Buckley for the midvalley seat that’s being vacated by term-limited Arn Menconi. All Eagle County voters will vote for all the seats, regardless of where they live.

The questions will cover local election issues. This week’s question pertains to open space. Voters approved a 1.5 mill tax in 2002 dedicated to preserving open space. Eagle also has a $2 per night tax on hotel and motel rooms that goes toward the town’s open space fund.

County open-space purchases include the Eagle River Preserve in Edwards, also known as the Eaton Parcel, which cost $12 million. The purchase was a partnership between the Vail Valley Foundation, Eagle Valley Land Trust, Eagle County and other community contributors.

The county also helped purchase a conservation easement on Bair Ranch near the mouth of Glenwood Canyon and Gates Ranch near Burns. The easements keep the properties privately owned, but the owners agree never to develop the land.

Critics of the purchases argued that open-space purchases should be along the valley corridor where they can be enjoyed by more residents.

VAIL DAILY: What role should the county play in preserving open space? Where should those preservation efforts be concentrated?

Now you are really entering the world of controversy and high passions. In the six years since the open-space property tax of 1.5 mills was approved by the voters, there has never been a decision that wasn’t steeped in controversy. Apparently, we are sharply divided over the best use of those funds.

It’s unfortunate, because most agree that there is a very limited supply of private land and it is imperative that we use smart growth principles to preserve our quality of life and live in harmony with our unique environment.

One of the most effective tools we have is our open space fund. Knowing the decisions that I make will never please everyone, I apply three principals to possible land acquisitions. First, is there true public benefit consistent with the original ballot passed by the voters? Second, are there other funding partners to help stretch our dollars? Finally, does the deal give good value for our investment?

Each open space project is unique with pluses and minuses. But the one of which I’m most proud is one I’ve been working on for two years ” preserving 2,100 acres in the Edwards and Avon area. At no cost.

Eagle County is 84 percent federal and state open space. With that thought in mind, Eagle County open space is a very important subject.

At one open-space forum, participants were asked to place dots for their priorities on a large map. Nearly every undeveloped parcel, private or government, received at least one dot. The preservation of the county’s western character was another stated goal. If the combination of dots and ranches were all satisfied, then nearly every ranch and undeveloped property in the county would be purchased.

Open space is good in proper locations, but not everywhere. When it is created in the middle of likely developable areas, however, it forces new and needed construction to move to the edges of communities, connecting them, thus creating urban sprawl.

The county’s job is to properly master plan open space and carefully use “resource zoning” to create buffers between communities, then follow the plan. This will reduce unnecessary taxes, preserve property rights, properly utilize existing open space, encourage “obtainable” housing, and maintain the local economy.

Indiscriminate purchases create wasteful spending, higher taxes, and poor planning. Managed growth is essential because nearly 65 percent of our economy is dependent upon the development industry.

Identifying and preserving open-space parcels for future generations is one of county government’s most proactive roles in our community. Open-space buffers act as the flip side of land-use policy that encourages more concentrated growth near existing population centers.

Preserving parcels in a natural state is the top quality-of-life indicator for many communities. Not all lands must be purchased through public funds.

Our open-space stock in the town of Eagle grew to over 1,000 acres, primarily through development negotiations and conservation easements. This land requires active defense. At the town, we defended our right to a dedicated funding source to the Colorado Supreme Court, and as mayor, I testified in an easement-infringement case.

Residents would reapprove the 2004 ballot measure for dedicated funding again today. Though Gates and Bair ranches each adhere to the ballot language, many voters are concerned that future purchases more directly enhance their daily lives, like the Eaton purchase in Edwards.

Key parcels should preserve important view corridors or provide better access to public lands beyond. I am concerned that public purchases are perceived to have value. I will see that lands are acquired with as minimal public cost as possible.

Although the open-space tax passed by a narrow margin, the voters have spoken, and I believe elected officials should respect the will of the voters. Tax revenue, like land, is a limited resource and must be preserved for services that are embraced by the majority of tax payers.

The open-space tax should be used to preserve land that cannot be protected through other land-planning processes. It should be land that is actually developable and not a canyon or hillside that has no realistic possibility of development.

It should be 100 percent in Eagle County. It should be accessible to the public. Some wildlife areas and vistas can be saved through cooperative land planning with developers, instead of using tax dollars.

The price of open space acquisitions has been controversial. Considering the amount of money spent to preserve open space, it seems prudent to get more than one independent appraisal before spending tax dollars.

The taxpayer should receive maximum benefit for each open-space dollar spent. I will support a process that requires the county to have an independent appraisal of any open space purchases.

Staff Writer Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2928 or

Support Local Journalism

Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.

User Legend: iconModerator iconTrusted User