Vail Valley Voices: Eagle County open space program often misunderstoon
Vail, CO, Colorado
What’s happening with Eagle County’s open space program? Citizens voted it in, the commissioners codified it with resolutions, and yet there appear to be many misconceptions as to how the funds can and should be used.
Some feel we shouldn’t be paying for land from ranchers or people who are well off, yet these are the people who own the land with open space attributes.
Others say we should buy land instead of putting conservation easements on it, yet purchase costs roughly 40 percent to 60 percent more than a conservation easement. Purchase also removes the property from the tax rolls and requires that the county, rather than a private owner, pay for maintenance and operations.
There are those who think the only open space the county should preserve is along the I-70 corridor, yet many of us don’t live here for what happens along I-70 but rather what doesn’t happen in the more scenic areas of the county.
In November of 2002, the voters approved Referendum 1H, which provided for an increase in property taxes for the purpose of “acquiring, maintaining or permanently preserving open space in Eagle County.”
The ballot question reads in part “Shall Eagle County taxes be increased … to be used for the purpose of acquiring, maintaining or permanently preserving open space in Eagle County such as: preserving wildlife habitat, protecting working farms and ranches, conserving scenic landscapes and vistas, protecting wetlands and floodplains, providing public access points to rivers and streams and servicing future voter approved debt for the above stated purpose ….”
The entire text and definition of the open space program can be found at http://www.eaglecounty.us/commDev/osa.cfm?id=911 .
The intent of the referendum is clearly to provide open space in Eagle County, not a specific area of Eagle County. Obviously, criteria to be preserved occur in various locations and not in one specific area. Likewise, there is a provision for providing access, but that is not the only provision nor is it the intent that all items listed will be included in each property selected.
In 2003, Commissioners Gallagher, Stone and Menconi adopted Resolution 2003-097 and in 2004 modified it with Resolution 2004-015 (also found at the Web site above).
These resolutions established the open space program, Open Space Advisory Committee and open space fund.
These three entities work as follows:
The open space program is to provide for acquisition or permanent preservation of land utilizing the funds approved in the referendum. It also provides for management, maintenance and monitoring of lands acquired or put into conservation easement.
The Open Space Advisory Committee is established to review criteria and make recommendations to the county commissioners who ultimately decide if, when and how much should be expended for a particular property. The committee is made up of representatives from each town in the county, a member from the metropolitan districts and six members appointed by the commissioners, two from each commissioner’s district. This gives widespread representation.
The open space fund is established to provide a separate account in the county treasury for all monies collected by the open space tax. These funds by law can only be spent for “acquisition, maintenance or permanent preservation of open space.”
To date the advisory committee has recommended, and the commissioners have funded, six projects that have been completed:
1. Bair Ranch conserved 2794 acres in Eagle County which helps preserve the scenic beauty of Glenwood Canyon (visible from I-70). 512 acres of this were purchased as part of the transaction by the BLM and does allow public access. The remainder is a historic working ranch with no public access.
2. Eagle River Preserve was purchased to protect 72 acres in the heart of Edwards (visible from I-70) and allows for complete public access when restored.
3. Grange Ranch in Basalt purchased and conserved 32 acres in Eagle County with ownership of a portion and conservation of the remainder allowing public access on both parts.
4. Meadow Creek (visible from I-70) purchased to protect 2.6 acres adjacent to a public park in West Vail and totally accessible to the public.
5. Gates Ranch conserved 740 acres in the Burns area. There is no public access to this historic working ranch.
6. McNulty Ranch conserved 466 acres in the Missouri Heights area of Eagle County. There is no public access to this historic working ranch.
Currently the committee has recommended, and the commissioners have approved, a seventh project that funds the costs related to a land exchange which will result in the protection of 2,140 accessible acres in the heart of the Eagle Valley (visible from I-70).
An eighth project just recommended by the committee to the Board of County Commissioners is the Colorado River Ranch, which is bisected by the Colorado River Road. This 1,000 acre property, as recommended by the committee to the county commissioners, would be conserved as a private ranch with public access to the Colorado River at the southern end, public parking and access to thousands of acres of BLM at the eastern portion and ownership of the old schoolhouse and surrounding land on the property by either the county or historical society for educational purposes.
To date the Open Space Advisory Committee has recommended eight projects to the commissioners of which three allow complete public access, three have some public access and two are historic ranches with no public access.
The committee has recommended properties that meet the criteria of both the ballot question approved by the voters and the resolutions adopted by the county commissioners.
The committee has also heard the desires of those who want public access and has placed more emphasis on this in recent projects. It should be made clear that the committee only recommends projects for conformance to established open space criteria, while the Eagle County commissioners make the final decision and determine the amount to be funded.
The members of the Open Space Advisory Committee look forward to future projects and to helping maintain the scenic character and open space attributes that make Eagle County the unique place it is.
Tom Edwards is a member of the Eagle County Open Space Advisory.
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