Taxing the public to keep spaces open |

Taxing the public to keep spaces open

Cliff Thompson

In the final effort of an on-again-off-again, two-year process, they are trying to get a tax-supported initiative on the November election ballot.

Tuesday, they plan to meet with the Eagle County

Board of Commissioners armed with the results of a survey showing broad-based support for a 1-mill tax increase. That would increase residential Voters denied a similar open-space initiative in 1994 by a margin of 2-1.

This time around, the effort has been delayed and postponed. In the meantime, proponents say, time – as well as land – is disappearing.

“I believe Eagle County has a precious resource – our land and quality of life,” says Diana Cecala, who’s coordinating the ballot initiative. “We’re in danger of losing that. If we don’t move now the land will not be available to purchase in five years. It’s hard to compete with developers.”

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Summit, Pitkin and Routt Counties already have tax-funded open-space programs.

In Eagle County, an open space proposal was made in December to commissioners, who eventually suggested creation of an overlapping special district with taxing powers. That, however, required approval of existing metro districts that have recreational authorities.

The problem with that approach, says Cecala, is that most of the metro districts had tax increases of their own to consider and they feared an additional tax would compete with their efforts.

Meanwhile, the Vail Recreation District, which needed to sign off on the open-space tax, initially supported the concept, but reversed course.

“I think the Vail taxpayers have already done a lot,” said VRD board member Hermann Staufer.

Vail already has a real estate transfer tax, or RETT, dedicated to acquiring open space. Since 1995, when voters approved a charter amendment, the RETT has resulted in the purchase of 18 parcels totalling 400 acres. For that reason the town may seek an exemption from the tax.

“The ultimate frustration is we have not been able to get to the people and put those on the ballot, because we were a competing issue,” Cecala said. “We didn’t get a true verdict from the people.”

Cecala and others will be trying Tuesday to convince the county commissioners to allow the tax increase as a ballot question in November using the results of a survey of county residents, conducted by Public Opinion Strategies, that show 66 percent of those polled support the idea of a tax for open space. A portion of that $10,000 survey was underwritten by Vail Resorts.

If the proposal makes the ballot – and is approved by voters – the 1-mill tax hike could raise a million dollars per year and would be controlled by a board of directors appointed by the county commissioners. That million dollars would be a pittance compared to the cost of increasingly expensive land, but the tax money could be used to leverage private and other sources of money, said Sydney Macy, director of the Conservation Fund.

Macy’s organization was able to leverage $10 million in local funds for more than $70 million in private and lottery-funded Greater Outdoors Colorado money to purchase the 20,000-acre Greenland Ranch, near Larkspur in Douglas County along I-25.

“We never would have been able to do anything if we hadn’t had that local money,” Macy says. “The ability to match funds is vital.”

That’s what could happen in Eagle County, said Eagle County Land Trust’s Cindy Cohagen. Her organization relies on private fund-raising to acquire land and spare it from development. The new tax could, in part, could fund some of the trust’s activities.

“In the best of times, it’s challenging,” says Cohagen. “This is not a time conducive to philanthropic contributions. The stock market is down and it’s not a time when people are philanthropically inclined.”

Cohagen called the I-70 corridor an “endangered species.”

“To protect it is going to require significant funding from the public and private sector,” she said.

Cecala said if people are interested in funding open space in Eagle County, they should call the commissioners and express their opinion.

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