Is Bair really our best choice?
The ability to have a healthy, rigorous yet civil debate in America is one of the key facets of our government that I cherish most. A $2 million decision to spend hard-earned taxpayer dollars is worthy of a $2 million debate. This debate gains even greater importance when it will be a precedent for future spending. Giordano Bruno once said, “If the first button of one’s coat is wrongly buttoned, all the rest will be crooked.” This is the setting of the stage concerning Bair Ranch.Our goal should be to serve the greatest number of Eagle County citizens in the best way possible. Many of our taxpayers work two or three jobs to support their families. They deserve to have open space that is available to them for picnicking or hiking with their families that is close enough for them to access in their limited free time. Eagle County has received two smart growth awards for planning that envisioned open space carefully planned between communities. Many people believe that the open space tax money should be carefully spent on these key properties in core population areas before they are gone forever. It is no secret that there are a number of serious problems with this request for funding. The majority of the problems are related to the lack of clear benefit to the public for public money spent. First of all, we can only legally spend our open space money on land in Eagle County. The Bair Ranch exit in Glenwood Canyon is in Garfield County, so none of your money can be spent there. The property along the river in Dotsero will be purchased and owned by the BLM, so Eagle County money cannot be spent there, either. The BLM money has been available for this purchase for over a year, but the Bairs have refused to sell until the entire $5.1 million deal is done. This only leaves the property up in the hills that we can’t see or use to spend your money on. Part of the transaction will be Craig Bair using Eagle County money to buy 1,000 acres from his brother. In return, Eagle County will only get a conservation easement that would not allow the Bairs to sell off or develop this property. The Bairs will still be able to run and even expand their dude ranching activities. Should Eagle County taxes be responsible for funding this commercial venture whose sales taxes go to Garfield County? The best way to understand the extent of this commercial operation is to visit the Bair Ranch website at http://www.highcanyon.com. There is no requirement that the Bairs continue their sheep ranch operation at all. So where is the public good being gained by spending the public’s money and what are we really preserving? It is ironic that many of the same people that support the Bair Ranch donation argue that roads used by ATVs in the summer and snowmobiles in the winter are disruptive to wildlife.It is irresponsible to decide to spend our money just because a deal is available that other people outside of our county support. Let’s carefully select the highest priority properties first while they are still available. Eagle County is clearly one of the crown jewels of Colorado. It would be a shame to look back next year and complain about increased density and development along the I-70 corridor because no one took the time to survey all possible options when the money was available. Eagle County citizens deserve honesty, objectivity and rigorous debate. Whatever the decision on Bair Ranch, we must know that we have established a fair, thoughtful and sound precedent to accomplish our vision of preserving Eagle County’s natural beauty for future generations.Tom Stone is an Eagle County commissioner.