The space race |

The space race

Those on either side of ballot referendum 1H, an open space property tax hike, offer two different doomsday scenarios to motivate voters Nov. 5.Vote against it, proponents say, and the I-70 corridor from East Vail to Dotsero will one day be a 60-mile-long strip mall, Home Depots and Super Wal-Marts greeting resort-bound visitors in one long chain of suburban sprawl that will ultimately kill the goose that laid the golden egg of tourism.Vote for it, opponents say, and a taxed-out middle class, already hard-pressed to afford housing in a hyper-inflated resort real estate market, will move on in droves, leaving a well-preserved land of gated trophy homes serviced by immigrant workers shuttled in from surrounding counties.”When people fly into Eagle County Airport, what do we want their first impression to be as they drive up to the resort areas?” asks Eagle Valley Land Trust executive director Cindy Cohagen, whose group supports the proposal.Proponents of the tax say tourists may stop coming to the Vail area if it increasingly looks like the place they’re escaping from, and they argue residents should want to preserve open space to protect their property values. “What happens to real estate values, the marketability of your high-end property?” Cohagen wonders.David Gossett of Avon, who works in construction and filed one of two official con statements with the county clerk’s office, says protecting property values is a minor consideration when the valley’s middle class those who provide professional services and run the resorts is being forced out by wildly escalating land prices.”Pretty soon the population is just going to be illegal aliens and rich people,” Gossett says, “because we’re not taking care of all the people who support the resorts.”The 1.5 mill property tax increase would raise about $3 million a year to be bonded against for the purchase of parcels that would then be placed into permanent conservation easements. That amounts to about $14 in new taxes a year on every $100,000 in assessed value, and the tax would sunset in 2025.Gossett says he knows that’s not a lot, but taken with all the other tax increases he’s been hit with in the dozen or so years he’s owned his Wildridge home, it starts to add up.”I have a hard time having my house taxed on something like open space when we can’t provide affordable housing or just basic services for the county,” Gossett says. He also feels the open space fund, which would be administered by Eagle County with direction from a citizen’s advisory committee, conflicts with the mission of the privately funded land trust.But Cohagen says the trust is beset by lagging contributions from private donors and that a permanent public funding source is critical, particularly considering that the surrounding resort counties Pitkin, Summit and Routt all have public funding mechanisms in place.”People are still passionate about protecting open space and are willing to give what they can,” Cohagen says. “Unfortunately, they aren’t able to give as much as they have in the past.”We simply cannot raise from philanthropic sources the huge amounts of dollars that will be required to purchase the large parcels of land along the I-70 corridor and even some of the river corridors.”One of the biggest private-sector supporters of the land trust over the years has been Vail Resorts, which is also backing Citizens for Open Space, the grassroots committee behind 1H.”We’ve contributed to it, and we’re supporting it,” acknowledges Porter Wharton III, senior vice president of public affairs for Vail Resorts. “We’ve been a major contributor to the Eagle Valley Land Trust for years, and that just comes from our company’s belief that we need to keep the beauty and quality of life that a lot of us moved here for.”While a major developer in the county, especially in recent years with several hotel, golf course and residential projects in the works, Vail Resorts has also been a player in preserving open space.The ski company floated a $2 million loan to the Forest Service that helped secure a deal that added 1,780 acres of private land to a state park in the Brush Creek Valley south of Eagle.As part of that deal, the Forest Service then picked up the pristine Vassar Meadows parcel and the Town of Avon was able to secure around 430 acres of open space between the Wildridge and Singletree subdivisions. Vail Resorts got a 40-acre parcel near the highway in Avon, which it plans to use for affordable housing.Cohagen says Vail Resorts was a critical partner in that deal and that the complex trade should be finalized by the end of the year. She points to other opportunities on the horizon the 4,200-acre Bair Ranch at the mouth of Glenwood Canyon and a 62-acre parcel along scenic U.S. Highway 24 near Tennessee Pass that may not be there if 1H fails and open space proponents have to go back to the drawing board.”My biggest concern is that window of opportunity to really get something done,” she says, “and in the current economy, without this permanent funding source, the next few years could be really dismal.”The last time Eagle County residents were asked to approve an open space property tax increase was in 1994, when voters resoundingly defeated the measure by a tally of 3,955 to 2,861.Gossett hopes for a similar result this time around. He points to the fact that more than 80 percent of the county is forest land owned by the federal government, and wonders whether we need any more land that can only be enjoyed on foot.”We live in the middle of the national forest, five minutes in every direction; you’re in the middle of open space,” Gossett says. “Instead of land of many uses, it’s going to turn into land of no use unless you’re walking in it.”

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