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On conserving open spaces

Kathy Heicher
Special to the Daily/Kathy HeicherMany scenic properties in Eagle County, such as this one along East Brush Creek south of Gypsum, were purchased from private owners through the cooperation of local, state and private entities. Referendum 1H, which proposes an "open-space tax," raises arguments from local citizens on both sides.
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Diana Cecala of Edwards has been working for the past two years to bring the open-space question to the ballot. She sees open-space preservation as a quality-of-life issue for local residents.

“We need to preserve some vistas, water access and some of the special parcels along the valley floor and on the ridgelines,” says Cecala, a member of the Eagle Valley Citizens for Open Space. “How many people will want to come here if what they find when they get off the airplane is exactly the same as what they left?”

But David Gossett, a contractor and 16-year resident of the valley, questions the need for open-space purchases, and for the new tax. Gossett, who owns a home in Wildridge, filed an official “con” statement with the County Clerk’s office opposing the open-space tax.

“When you fly in here, you pretty much see open space,” Gossett says. “It’s not like the middle of Denver, where we’d be fighting for a few last parcels of open land. That will never be the case. We are surrounded by Forest Service, and BLM.”

An open-space property tax is a concept that’s been floated in Eagle County before. Eight years ago, a citizen group supporting open space put a similar question on the ballot and staged a short but spirited six-week campaign. When the votes were in, only 42 percent of voters had cast favorable votes – not enough for a new tax, but good enough numbers to give open-space supporters a reason to give the concept another try.

Million-dollar plots

A preservation problem is that land in the county is expensive, and in order to be effective millions of dollars must be raised, says Cecala, who also is on the board of the Eagle Valley Land Trust.

“Frankly, private fund-raising out of people’s pockets is not a viable source for funding open-space parcels in the Eagle River and Roaring Fork valleys,” she says. “The Land Trust will never be able to do that. They are the first to say we need a public stream of money to fund open-space purchase.”

The Eagle Valley Land Trust is a private organization that raises funds for open-space acquisition. Over the past 20 years, the Land Trust has had some success in protecting some lands through various conservation methods. However, Cecala and other tax supporters say the rate of local development and the demand for open space far outpaces the amount of money that the Land Trust has been able to raise.

Gossett, meanwhile, says local government has some bigger priorities, such as ensuring affordable housing is available for workers, keeping buses rolling in and keeping a state driver’s license bureau open locally. He says those factors are taking a bigger toll on middle-class residents.

“The cost per year (of the tax) is not the point,” Gossett says. The point is, the county can’t provide the basic services that they should. The priorities are wrong.”

But public land doesn’t necessarily stay public, Cecala adds. Public land swaps and sales are not uncommon in Eagle County. They are used by the federal agencies as a land-use management tool. Therefore, some lands that appear to be open space now may not be so in the future, she says.

For example, the Eagle County Board of Commissioners have designated as open space a parcel of land at the Edwards’ Berry Creek 5th project.

But despite an appeal from the Land Trust and some local citizens, the commissioners did not guarantee the land would remain undeveloped forever, indicating they want to keep their options open.

“That’s a prime example of what is not open space,” Cecala says.

There also is a need for open space preservation along the Interstate 70, particularly given the current pace of development, she says.

“It doesn’t matter that there is Forest Service land in the backcountry if what we live, look at, and breath every day is the Village at Avon and development like that,” she says.

Bad timing?

Dave Mitchell, another critic of the open space tax, has been visiting the valley since the early 1970s and has been a local property owner since 1976. For the past three years, he has been a full-time resident of Cordillera.

He lived for 30 years in Fairfield County, Conn., and says that area had a successful open-space acquisition program that relied on private donations rather than taxes.

“I am for preserving land, but now is not the time to increase taxes,” Mitchell says. “A lot of people who work in this valley just don’t have enough money. Now is not the time to make them go shell out more.”

Given the current economy, perhaps the open-space tax would be a better idea in a year or two, Mitchell says.

But Cecala says that time is running out on some of the pieces of land that most need protection as open space. She estimates that many of those parcels will be sold to developers in the next three or four years as expansion in the valley moves westward.

Open-space advocates are particularly interested in some large parcels of land along Gypsum Creek, the Colorado River Road and state Highway 131, as well as two State Land Board parcels in the Edwards area that were under contract to a private developer until the deal was voided.

“I do think money should be spent on affordable housing, and the bus system,” Cecala says. “Our contention is that this (open space) is one of the tools to create community, is a tool that helps balance growth, and basically helps to achieve smart growth.

“Affordable housing is another tool,” she adds. “I don’t think they’re either-or.”

Conservation conflicts

Cecala acknowledges resistance from towns, such as Vail and Basalt, that already have a public funding source for open space. She says, however, voters need to think of countywide needs.

“Revenues for Vail certainly depend on beauty countywide,” Cecala says. “We have to get out of the parochial mentality that says “I’ll only pay for things in my backyard’. Our fortunes are linked.”

She says she’s optimistic about chances for passage of the tax. A recent, statistically-valid survey conducted for the Citizens for Open Space found that 60 percent of local voters were willing to tax themselves for such an amenity, she says.

Land Trust board member Terrill Knight says open-space acquisition will continue to be voluntary, too, even if the tax is approved. The tax would make funds available, but the decision to commit to open space would be up to the landowner. Knight says he sees the Nov. 5 open-space ballot question as a sort of test.

“If people want more open space, then this appears to me this is the best option at this time for additional open space,” Knight says. “The people who want open space need to make the financial commitment to get it.”

Campaign spending

Campaign finance records filed with the Eagle County Clerk and Recorder’s Office indicate that the Citizens for Open Space group has spent $6,325 on its campaign to date. In the previous year, when the group spent $15,200, most of which went to surveys. No details about specific contributors were available in the file.

The referendum asks voters to approve a 1.5 mill property tax levy that would raise funds for the acquisition of open space. The tax, which would amount to $14 per $100,000 of home value, would have a 20 year sunset limit and would generate about $3 million per year initially.

As property values increase, that number would rise, although tax supporters have put a limit of $7 million on the amount of revenue they can collect annually.

If the tax is approved, revenues raised and open space purchases will be managed by Eagle County under the guidance of a nine-member citizens advisory board that would include a representative from each town in the county, a representative for unincorporated Eagle County and one at-large member, as well as a non-voting member from local land conservation organizations who would act as a technical resource.

The advisory board would make recommendations; but the county commissioners would actually make the final decisions on how the money is spent.

REFERENDUM 1H

SHALL EAGLE COUNTY TAXES BE INCREASED IN 2003 UP TO A MAXIMUM AMOUNT OF $2,989,525 AND ANNUALLY THEREAFTER UP TO A MAXIMUM AMOUNT OF $7,000,000 ANNUALLY THROUGH 2025, SUCH TAXES TO CONSIST OF AN AD VALOREM TAX MILL LEVY IMPOSED ON ALL TAXABLE PROPERTY OF THE COUNTY AT A RATE NOT IN EXCESS OF 1.5 MILLS, TO BE USED FOR THE PURPOSE OF ACQUIRING, MAINTAINING, OR PERMANENTLY PRESERVING OPEN SPACE IN EAGLE COUNTY SUCH AS: PRESERVING WILDLIFE HABITAT, PROTECTING WORKING FARMS AND RANCHES, CONSERVING SCENIC LANDSCAPES AND VISTAS, PROTECTING WETLANDS AND FLOODPLAINS, PROVIDING PUBLIC ACCESS POINTS TO RIVERS AND STREAMS, AND SERVICING FUTURE VOTER-APPROVED DEBT FOR THE ABOVE STATED PURPOSE; AND SHALL ALL REVENUE EXPENDITURES BE MADE BY THE BOARD OF COUNTY COMMISSIONERS AFTER CONSIDERING THE RECOMMENDATIONS OF A CITIZENS ADVISORY COMMITTEE; AND, IN CONNECTION THEREWITH, AS A VOTER-APPROVED REVENUE CHANGE, SHALL THE PROCEEDS OF SUCH TAXES AND INVESTMENT INCOME THEREON BE COLLECTED AND SPENT BY THE COUNTY IN 2003 AND IN EACH YEAR THEREAFTER, WITHOUT REGARD TO ANY SPENDING, REVENUE-RAISING OR OTHER LIMITATION CONTAINED WITHIN ARTICLE X, SECTION 20 OF THE COLORADO CONSTITUTION, OR ANY OTHER LAW AS IT CURRENTLY EXISTS OR AS IT MAY BE AMENDED IN THE FUTURE AND WITHOUT LIMITING IN ANY YEAR THE AMOUNT OF OTHER REVENUES THAT MAY BE COLLECTED AND SPENT BY THE COUNTY?

This story first appeared in the Eagle Valley Enterprise.


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