Open Space makes November ballot |

Open Space makes November ballot

Scott Cunningham

A proposed 1.5 mill property tax increase for Eagle County, designed to purchase land for open space, was approved Sept. 3 by the county commissioners to appear on the Nov. 5 ballot.Citizens for Open Space (COS), a local non-profit organization, is spear-heading efforts to pass the measure, which is projected to raise about $2.9 million a year. The money would be used to bond against in negotiating the purchase of parcels of land within Eagle County. Once within the public domain, county officials would place conservation easements on the parcels, a condition that cannot be altered.COS coordinator Diana Cecala believes public support is already in place for the measure to pass. In a survey conducted last week by Public Opinion Strategies, Inc. of Denver and funded by Vail Resorts, Inc., 60 percent of a random sampling of 360 Eagle County residents responded that they would support the ballot question as written, a result that Cecala believes is a good indicator of the current sentiment.”We strongly believe (the open space initiative) is in the interest of the public,” she said to county commissioners during Tuesday’s meeting, though afterwards she admitted that much work still remains for her organization.”We never take anything for granted. The voters are there right now, but we need to solidify that support,” Cecala says.One obstacle could be the Town of Vail, whose town manager sent a letter to the commissioners expressing concerns about the ballot initiative. In his unofficial correspondence (the Town Council has not issued a formal opinion on the matter), Bob McLaurin mentioned the fact that Vail already has a property tax dedicated to open space purchase, a perceived lack of an implementation plan, and the possible competition the initiative could present to Vail’s own tax increase initiatives scheduled for the November ballot.Should the county-wide increase pass, McLaurin would like to see the Town of Vail reimbursed for the tax money it has already dedicated to the purchase of open space, around 1,300 acres worth.”I’m not concerned with the issue in and of itself,” he says. “I’m concerned with the inequity of it. If we’re (Eagle County) going to buy open space down valley, then some of that money should come up valley to reimburse us for what we’ve already spent on open space.”Dr. Tom Steinberg, a member of Citizens for Open Space and long-time Vail resident and form town council member, believes that Vail has already exhausted its options for open space purchase and should dedicate its Real Estate Transfer Tax (RETT), the vehicle the town uses to buy open space, to another purpose. McLaurin, however, does not believe a rededication of the RETT solves the issue at hand.”I don’t disagree with Tom he was on the council that had the political courage to establish the RETT funds in the first place but that doesn’t speak to the inequity of the situation: we’ve already been taxed to buy ours,” McLaurin says.Cecala states that while she is sympathetic with Vail’s concerns, she doesn’t believe the political arm of the town truly represents public sentiment there.”We have found a disconnect between what the voters of Vail support and how their political leaders feel,” she says. Besides, she adds, Vail will have a say in how the money is distributed, since the funds will be administered by a citizen’s advisory board, composed in part by representatives from each of Eagle County’s incorporated areas.”But,” she concludes, “as a citizen’s group, we shy away from making predictions about what any board would do.”

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