Land trust sparks suspicion |

Land trust sparks suspicion

Cliff Thompson

EAGLE – Eagle County formed its own nonprofit conservation agency Tuesday – a move that has left supporters of a private agency working on land preservation unhappy and suspicious.Members of the Eagle Valley Land Trust are questioning the motives behind the county’s actions despite assurances from the commissioners the county would use its land trust only after the private nonprofit had been offered a first chance at particular pieces of land.”Why is the county forming a not-for-profit organization?” asked Cindy Cohagen, executive director of the Eagle Valley Land Trust. “What is it trying to accomplish that isn’t being accomplished already? I don’t know what the county’s intentions are in the future.”The Eagle Valley Land Trust, which has an annual operating budget of $200,000 per year, depends on donations and government programs to block development on private land. The land trust purchases development rights through a legal tool called a conservation easement. No competitionEagle County could purchase private land for public open space or parks. And Commissioner Tom Stone, who spearheaded the idea, said the county won’t be competing with the private organization.”There’s some misperception that the county land trust is in competition with the Eagle Valley Land Trust,” he said. “We have no intention of being in competition.”Fellow commissioner Michael Gallagher agreed the county would not be competing for nonprofit funding. “I tried that once,” he said. “This would only be used in instances where the land trust is insufficient for the purposes that are good for the people.”Part of the funding for both land trusts could come from the Eagle County-controlled open space tax that generates $2.9 million annually. That money is highly coveted. One potential use for the money would be a contribution towards the public/private preservation of the $12 million, 72-acre Eaton Ranch in Edwards. That potential purchase is approaching a funding deadline later this month.Former Eagle Valley Land Trust board member Diana Cecala, who was instrumental in getting the open space tax approved by county voters in 2002, said she isn’t comfortable with the county’s action.”It’s an element of competition. It’s undermining” Cecala said. “If you go into deals saying you want county (open space) money, they can say they aren’t going to contribute public funds unless you give your easement to the county. It’s incredible leverage.”Political irony? One of the reasons the commissioners approved the new organization is to ensure development bans remain in place if the Eagle Valley Land Trust ceases to exist, Stone said.But that was disputed by Cohagen, who said every easement the land trust holds contains language that, should the land trust cease to exist, the land would be protected by another nonprofit organization.Cecala said the county land trust had been rushed through while outgoing Commissioner Michael Gallagher was still in office. His last meeting will be next Tuesday. Her perception was that commissioner-elect Peter Runyon, who will replace Gallagher, and commissioner Arn Menconi, who did not attend the land trust portion of Tuesday’s meeting, may have been more sympathetic to her cause. Both are Democrats. “We wanted it tabled until the next board meetings,” she said. “That did not make us feel very good.”Stone also receive a personal rebuke from land trust board member Anne Esson for his philosophical stand on the measure.”It’s somewhat ironic that the county is led by a strong Republican who proposes to expand government,” she said. “We have an adequate land trust here.”Staff Writer Cliff Thompson can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 450, or, Colorado

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