Vail Valley spends for space | VailDaily.com

Vail Valley spends for space

Kathy Heicher
kheicher@eaglevalleyenterprise.com
Vail Valley, CO Colorado
Kristin Anderson/Vai DailyThe Colorado River Ranch in western Eagle County is the latest conservation project to seek money from Vail Valley's open space tax
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VAIL VALLEY, Colorado –Vail Valley voters approved an Eagle County open space tax in 2002 by a mere 51 votes. Since that time, the tax has generated over $20 million, and has been used to protect 4,106 acres of land. And every decision on spending that money has created some sort of political ruckus.

Some citizens question the prices the county has paid, like the $5.9 million that went to the Eaton Ranch in Edwards, now know as the Eagle River Preserve. Others object to spending money for preservation of ranch properties on the outskirts of the county; arguing that the money is better spent on the I-70 corridor. Some insist that the spending of public money should guarantee public access to the land involved.

“Open space is incredibly controversial,” says Kris Aoki, long range planner for the county.

She’s studied open space programs in numerous Front Range counties, and worked in open space for the City and County of Denver. At times, issues grew so heated the staff received death threats, she says.

Currently, the county has $9.4 million in its open space fund.

Ann Luark, a rancher on the Colorado river who also teaches skiing and sells some real estate, is a member of Eagle County’s Open Space Advisory Committee. She’s been witness to plenty of what she calls “red-faced discussions” of open space issues.

She attributes some of the controversy that dogs open space decisions to the changing demographics of the county. Many of the people who live here now weren’t around when the vote was taken; and don’t understand how the law works. Others, she says, are clearly not comfortable with the concept of spending taxpayer money on open space.

“That’s completely different issue,” says Luark, who admits that she herself did not vote for the tax. Still, once it was approved, she decided to get involved.

“The tax was voted in. It is what it is. Until it gets voted out, we basically don’t have a choice but to make it function,” she says.

Although Eagle County has an open space master plan, the county does not take an aggressive approach in pursuing land acquisitions.

“We wait for them to be brought to us,” Aoki says. The committee doesn’t look at who the applicant is.

“We look at how the property meets the criteria. The question I have to answer when I bring a proposal before the (open space committee) is whether this property is worth conserving,” she says.

The criteria for open space are clearly spelled out in county regulations (see related sidebar). A citizen committee first reviews the proposals.

“The decisions have to be in line with the criteria. We go through that with a fine-tooth comb. We have a lawyer sitting in there with us,” Luark says.

Political climate is also a factor. The county’s last conservation easement deal, the Gates ranch in Burns, drew fire because there is no public access. Lately, public access has been a priority for the Citizen Advisory Committee, Aoki says.

“Land acquisitions need proof of public benefit, based on the political climate of Eagle County, and the views of the committee,” says Aoki.

The county requires partners in its open space spending. Land trusts in the Eagle River Valley and Roaring Fork Valley have been involved in most of the acquisitions. The financial partnerships also involve private property owners, towns and the state. The theory is that the county can get more “bang for its buck” by leveraging the tax money with contributions from other sources.

Some of the acquisitions have involved conservation easements. In effect, the landowner is paid to not develop the land. Those projects require that somebody, such as the rancher or a land trust, be responsible for maintenance of the land. The county generally does not take on open space maintenance projects.

Diana Cecala, of Edwards, is a political activist who was instrumental in getting the open space tax passed. Both she and Aoki point out that in comparison to other counties, Eagle County’s program is young. Some counties have been acquiring open space for several decades.

She points out there is development pressure throughout the county, even up on the Colorado River Road ranch country. Eagle County is currently reviewing a proposal to conserve the 1,000-acre Colorado River Ranch. The county has been asked to contributed $5.7 million.

“We need to be proactive, and be ahead of the development curve, not just behind it,” she says.

Cecala says there has long been a public mandate for acquisition of open space. Current surveys indicate open space remains a quality of life priority for the majority of county residents. And often, only public expenditures can provide the kind of open space that people seek, Cecala says.

“The public has said time and time again that quality of life, and access to the outdoors are critical priorities. It is what people are here for…. Things have changed. The money is there. We should use it,” she says.