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Open space tax: yes or no?

Veronica Whitney

“It’s more taxes, but I wouldn’t be opposed to it,” said Lamirato, a resident of Denver who already pays a real estate transfer tax to buy open space in Vail.

Phil Milton of Naples, Fla., who owns a house in Beaver Creek, agrees.

“I’m very anti-tax. But if it’s for conserving land, I’d vote yes,” he said.

After they unanimously agreed that voters should have the final say on the issue, the Eagle County commissioners will decide today what specifically will go on the ballot.

“I’d like to let the people choose,” said Michael Gallagher, chairman of the Board of Commissioners.

The commissioners will host a public hearing today on the request of the Eagle Valley Citizens for Open Space to raise the tax levy 1.5-mill county-wide to fund open space in Eagle County.

Because the ballot question asks for additional revenues, Eagle County Assistant Attorney Bryan Treu said they have to ensure it complies with TABOR. TABOR, also known as the “Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights,” limits local government growth.

“We can’t exceed the TABOR limits without voters’ approval,” Treu said.

If it’s passed, the initiative could increase about $14 per $100,000 assessed value of a house.

The increase, however, will depend on whether the commissioners decide to increase the property tax rate this year, said Jack Ingstad, county administrator. Because the county’s income comes from property and sales tax and fees and permits, a decision on whether to increase the property tax depends on how much money the county raises this year.

“I think it will be difficult to get it passed,” said Commissioner Tom Stone. “It’s difficult to convince people to raise taxes during a down economy.”

Peter Bergh, a resident of Singletree and Eagle Valley Land Trust board member, said he’d be surprised if the incentive didn’t pass in November.

“I would vote yes,” Bergh said. “Most people who’ve come to the valley see a lack of vision to preserve open space close to where they live. Paying the tax will eventually raise the property value.”

Commissioner Arn Menconi also said he is in favor of the ballot initiative for open space.

“I support the issue and I’d like the commissioners to back a resolution supporting the ballot initiative to bring more open space to Eagle County,” Menconi said.

The initiative, Stone said, could end up being a double tax for towns like Vail and Basalt, where residents already are paying extra tax for open space.

Vail already has a real estate transfer tax, or RETT, to purchase open space. Since 1995, when voters approved a charter amendment, the RETT has resulted in the purchase of 18 parcels totalling 400 acres.

“Last year, Basalt passed a tax for open space, too,” Stone said.

If the proposal makes the ballot and is approved by voters, it could raise $2.9 million per year, Ingstad said. The funds would be administered by Eagle County officials.

The county already considers specific requests to purchase open space, Gallagher said. Four years ago, for example, it put $1.5 million to preserve East Brush Creek.

“If the tax doesn’t pass, that doesn’t mean we can’t preserve open space,” Stone said.

Other ways to do it would be through conservation easements and clustering incentives, he said.

“It’s also important to bring fingers of that open space closer to our communities,” said Bergh, who also is president of the Berry Creek Metro Board.

An example of that is the Berry Creek 5th project, where 50 of 110 acres are dedicated to open space.

The fund, said Diana Cecala, with the Eagle Valley Citizens for Open Space, would “help achieve balanced growth in the county and help preserve the most important priorities identified in our survey: water, wildlife and our western heritage.”

The organization is working with the Eagle Valley Land Trust to identify parcels for preservation.

“There are a lot of parcels on the river valleys that feed to the I-70 corridor that are high conservation value,” said the Eagle County Land Trust’s executive director, Cindy Cohagen.

Her organization relies on private fund-raising to acquire land and spare it from development. Public funding would be an addition to the trust’s resources.

“We’re not proposing a tax in perpetuity,” Cecala said. “At some point we’ll say, there’s no more open space to buy.” The tax would have a 20-year life.

Although Eagle County voters denied a similar open-space initiative in 1994 by a margin of 2-1, Cecala said the initiative now has wide public support. A public survey conducted by the Eagle Valley Citizens for Open Space indicated that 66 percent of those polled support the 1.5 mill levy increase to fund the purchase of open land in the county.

Summit, Pitkin and Routt counties now have tax-funded open-space programs.

“If the initiative doesn’t pass,” Cecala said, “it will be hard to preserve open space because it’s hard to compete with developers.

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


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