Open space tax tapped for ranch preservation | VailDaily.com

Open space tax tapped for ranch preservation

Veronica Whitney

Eagle County commissioners have withdrawn a $2 million contribution to a deal aimed at barring development on the Bair Ranch, pictured above. An citizens committee will now decide whether the conservation plan is eligible for funding by the county's open space tax.

Eagle County’s financial support for banning future development on the Bair Ranch in Glenwood Canyon will have to come from the voter-approved open space tax.

The Eagle County Board of County Commissioners this week withdrew a $2 million contribution toward purchasing the “conservation easement” that would bar development on the ranch. The commissioners referred the project to the newly-formed Eagle County Open Space Advisory Committee, which will advise the commissioners on what projects should be funded by the tax passed by voters in 2002. Revenues from the tax will be avaible to the committee after Jan. 1.

Commissioner Arn Menconi didn’t vote because he was on vacation.

“We were told we were up against a deadline, and it didn’t happen the way we were told it would,” Commissioner Michael Gallagher said before his vote.

Money from the county’s general fund was going to help purchase a $5 million conservation easement on 4,300 acres of the ranch that straddles the border of Eagle and Garfield counties.

In July, Gallagher and Menconi approved the funding. But Gallagher said he has changed his mind because there’s been a change of circumstances.

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“While acquiring an easement on the Bair Ranch is a good thing for Eagle County, there’s no sense of urgency anymore,” Gallagher said.

Although the money was made available this summer to purchase the conservation easement on the ranch owned by brothers Craig and Legrande Bair, there’s still no contract between the Bair brothers and the Conservation Fund, the organization supervising the deal.

Craig was going to buy his brother out with money from the conservation easement and the original deadline between the two brothers was in October. But the deadline came and went without a closing between them.

“We’re directing the interested parties to go through the Open Space Advisory Committee,” Commissioner Tom Stone said. “The board (of county commissioners) will consider money from the open space tax if it’s recommended by the Open Space Advisory Committee.”

To the Eagle Valley Land Trust, the organization in charge of local fund raising for the project, the withdrawal of the county’s contribution means a further delay in their efforts.

“Now we have to see if the Open Space Advisory Committee will fund the project,” said Eagle Valley Land Trust Director Cindy Cohagen.

The Land Trust initially postponed its attempts to raise $1.1 million to put toward the easement because there was no contract between the Bair brothers and the Conservation Fund.

“Until we know that deal will go through, we won’t start campaigning. And until we know if we’re getting open space tax money, we won’t know how much we have to raise,” Cohagen said.

“Hopefully the (Open Space Advisory Committee) will see how important this projects is and agree to continue the $2 million commitment,” she said. “We continue to believe this is a tremendous opportunity for the people of Eagle County and that is shown by state and federal support for the project.”

The federal government, through the Bureau of Land Management, has already committed $1.5 million to the project. And the board of directors of the state lottery-funded Great Outdoors Colorado Program, or GOCO, has given $1 million to help purchase the easement. Last spring, GOCO committed $400,000 to purchase the easement and earlier this month pitched in another $600,000.

“From my perspective, I still feel there is a sense of urgency,” Cohagen said. “Once again we’re on hold. We’re waiting for the play clock to begin.”

Ron Wolfe, and Avon Town Councilman selected to represent the town on the open space advisory committee, said he would support a contribution to the Bair Ranch preservation deal, but only after he evaluates all options. Andy Wiessner, an advisory committee member from Vail, said it would be hard to argue that the Bair Ranch isn’t a top priority.

Veronica Whitney can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 454, or at vwhitney@vaildaily.com.