Open-space tax repeal emerges in Vail Valley
Vail, CO Colorado
VAIL VALLEY, Colorado – Michael Gross voted in favor of creating a Vail Valley open space tax in 2002. Now he’s ready to repeal it.
A 1.5 mill open space tax passed by 51 votes in 2002 in Eagle County. The tax has generated more than $20 million and has gone to preserve 4,106 acres of land.
But it hasn’t been used the way Gross though it would, he said
Most of the land isn’t accessible to the public and isn’t in high profile spots in Eagle County, said Gross.
“I feel kind of guilty because I didn’t read the fine print … the way they worded the amendment gives them the loophole not to have public access,” said Gross, who lives in Gypsum. “It all comes down to the fact that here we are being taxed without any public access or public use.”
Gross isn’t in a hurry, but he plans to put together a petition to try and get the commissioners to put a question on the ballot that would either amend or repeal the tax.
“I’ve had numerous people call and e-mail me that say this is not what they voted for, it’s not what they bought into,” Gross said. “If we’re going to be taxed we should have public access.”
Citizens can’t get a question on the ballot just by collecting signatures. The commissioners have to approve a ballot question before it’s put to a vote, said Teak Simonton, the county’s clerk and recorder.
But Gross thinks a petition full of signatures would help make his point.
The commissioners are holding a public hearing today on the latest request for money from the open space fund. The Eagle Valley Land Trust wants $5.7 million in open space money to put a conservation easement on 1,000-acre piece of property 12 miles north of Dotsero called the Colorado River Ranch.
The proposal includes some public access, including a 2-acre parking lot next to Bureau of Land Management land, a place for people to put their kayaks or other small boats into the Colorado River and access to an old schoolhouse on the property.
But that’s not enough, Gross said.
“What they’ve done is say ‘here’s your two acres,'” said Gross. “But over 1,000 acres is still closed to the public, I don’t think that’s right or even fair.”
Edwards resident Mike Beltracchi has opposed the tax since 2002.
“My feeling is that if public money is being spent it should be for public access,” Beltracchi said. “Looking at each of the properties they’ve purchased, probably at least 95 percent is private access only, it’s not even acreage that’s in a view corridor by the public.”
And just because a tax was voted in doesn’t mean it should stay that way, Beltracchi said.
“I believe, that at a minimum, the wording on the tax should be changed so if public funds are spent it should be for public access,” Beltracchi said.
Compared to most conservation easements, the Colorado River Ranch proposal offers quite a bit of public access, said Cindy Cohagen, director of projects for the Eagle Valley Land Trust.
And the open space tax was never meant to create people could engage in high-impact recreational uses, such as dirt biking or ball games, Cohagen said.
“I think there’s a misunderstanding of how that’s intended,” she said. “If you read it very clear, nowhere does it mention active recreation, that’s what the voters passed.”
The county could buy the entire ranch if it wanted to include more recreational uses on it, but it would cost more, Cohagen said.
“I think one point is the issue of buying a conservation easement versus buying the land,” she said. “The county could certainly buy it and have unlimited access, but then the issue becomes the responsibilities for maintaining it. Now the county as the owner would have to decide what it wants to do with a 1,000-acre working ranch and that’s a burden to the taxpayers.”
Conservation easements are less expensive and allow the owners to keep control of the property.
Bob Kippola, who lives in Edwards, said the county could do a better job screening the proposals it gets for open space money.
“Public access should be the highest order,” Kippola said. “The commissioners should be rigorously forcing the committee to bring forward the parcels with public access.”
Staff Writer Chris Outcalt can be reached at 970-748-2931 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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