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Open space a priority in Eagle

Eagle Valley EnterpriseElk gather on open space along Brush Creek in Eagle.
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EAGLE ” The Eagle community values its open space.

In fact, roughly 25 percent of the town’s land area falls into that category.

“One of the reasons that Eagle’s open space program is so successful is it’s public-driven,” said Bill Heicher, open space coordinator for the town. “In surveys, open space always comes up as a top value for Eagle residents. It’s a very important quality of life issue.”

But it takes more than surveyed public support to make an open space program work ” it also takes money and planning. Back in the 1990s, Eagle addressed both.

According to Heicher, the initial push for a formal open space program came from former trustee, Larry McKinzie, and Eagle Town Manager Willy Powell. Knowing that there are groups out there willing to share costs on land purchases, the town starting looking for a dedicated funding source to help preserve open space.

In May 1996, Eagle voters approved a lodging occupation tax that specifies a $2 fee charged on all short-term rentals in town.

By ordinance, money raised from the tax is to be used exclusively for the preservation of agricultural lands, and for the acquisition, maintenance and management of land and easements in and around the town for open-space buffer zones, trails within open space areas, wildlife habitat and wetland preservation.

With a funding source identified, the town adopted open space plans in October 1997.

The Eagle Area Open Lands Conservation Plan defines open space as “undeveloped areas characterized by scenic lands and sensitive environmental resources that provide community benefits if conserved in perpetuity.”

While the town does have money specifically allocated for open-space transactions, there’s hardly scads of money available. That’s why it’s important to have friends in the land business.

According to Heicher, the town collects approximately $180,000 annually from the lodging occupation tax. “That’s obviously not nearly enough to do anything meaningful in this valley,” he said. But that money makes Eagle an attractive partner for bigger players in the open-space purchase game.

Take east and west Brush Creek as an example. The town kicked in $500,000 toward the purchase of 1,800 acres of former Adam’s Rib property, partnering with Eagle County, Colorado State Parks, Great Outdoor Colorado (lottery funds) and the Eagle Valley Land Trust. The result is today, residents enjoy an expanded Sylvan Lake State Park and U.S. Forest Service properties in Vassar Meadow.

But deals like east and west Brush Creek don’t come along very often. That land purchase reflected an intergovernmental agreement paired with prime undeveloped real estate under single-person ownership ” a triumvirate that doesn’t happen every day. And while the price tag was steep ” $14 million ” the entities involved considered it a value to preserve the pristine lands involved.

“It gets harder and harder to accomplish open space purchases because land values keep going up and up. At the same time, that’s why open space is getting more and more valuable.”

In the end, Heicher believes tying up open space is the most lasting legacy Eagle can leave to future residents.

“When you lock up these areas, it is forever ” 200 years from now, these lands are supposed to be the same as they are today,” Heicher said.

That definition includes:

– Lands that protect wildlife and natural resources.

– Lands that conserve ranching and other agricultural practices.

– Lands that preserve the rural, undeveloped character of the area.

– Lands that protect environmentally hazardous areas.

– Lands that function as community separators or buffers.

– Lands that conserve areas of high scenic quality and visual exposure.

– Lands that provide publicly-accessible areas for appropriate recreation and trails.

– Lands that provide in-town open areas.

Just as telling, however, is what the definition does not include – golf courses, ball fields or developed parks.

“Because of the ballot language specifics, you can’t use open space funds to build roundabouts or town halls, or buy playground equipment,” said BIll Heicher, open space coordinator for the town.

This story first appeared in the Eagle Valley Enterprise


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