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Why not bond for open space?

Arn Menconi

Just two years ago voters approved our open space tax. Since then we barely had a chance to catch our breath before the first opportunities appeared.First there was Bair Ranch and now the Eaton Ranch. Bair Ranch required us to focus on the formation of an open space committee and develop a well thought out evaluation criteria. Both the Bair and Eaton deals have also been instructive on the importance of public-private partnerships for funding these acquisitions.After strong consideration of the tremendous one-time opportunity to preserve the historic Eaton Ranch as open space – which will be further discussed by the Eagle County Board of Commissioners on Thursday at 6 p.m. – I have come to realize that our preservation strategy must continue to evolve beyond Bair Ranch and our final decision with regard to Eaton Ranch. While the county’s commitment to the Eaton Ranch deal is still pending, preservation efforts for both of these valuable parcels have served as the beginning of a new era of land use policy for Eagle County.We should ask ourselves what would be a worthy aspiration for land preservation for Eagle County residents and future generations. My answer is that we should establish a master plan that selects open space along the valley corridor and bond for the additional funds from the open space tax to ensure a more abundant supply of preserved land that directly impacts our daily views.In order to create a real, fully realized vision of this kind, we must begin purchasing while land values are not out of reach of the $16 million to $20 million of open space funds that could be bonded by a vote of the people. The purchase needs to be coupled with partnering dollars from private, local government and state funds in order to maximize acquisitions and work its magic.We can do this. We already have a process in place that collects $3 million dollars in the name of open space, a viable land trust and citizens who increasingly value open space.The problem with the current arrangement is that our contributions are not enough to purchase increasing scarce land with skyrocketing values. So we should begin by agreeing that we are going to leverage our open space funds to buy more land now. After all, if we don’t save our land now before prices rise quickly, who and what will do it for us? Our children? A few million dollars in 2010’s real estate market? In a place that values and depends on the outdoors, we have a responsibility to take care of our views, parks, river corridor and love of nature. Some may have reservations about this policy, but it will seem inconsequential with time. As Avon council member Kristi Ferraro wrote in her letter to the editor this week, “Several years ago, Avon was offered the property that is now the Village at Avon ($7.5 million for the land south of I-70). Avon attempted to buy the property, but in the end, the deal fell apart over a few terms that were deal breakers in 1985, but seem trivial in hindsight. As I continue to look favorably on the private/public partnership efforts to preserve Eaton Ranch, I think about how different the future of Avon would have been had Avon, Eagle County, the Vail Valley Foundation and the community worked together to purchase the Village at Avon, preserving a substantial portion of it as open space.” Similar scenarios have occurred over land in Wolcott and Eagle’s Red Mountain Ranch.In the business world, financial security begins with ownership of real assets. So the money bonded by this plan would buy land today for tomorrow’s future. Everyone understands this and that real estate always goes up.The land is an investment in our quality of life and preserving our environment. Further to the definition of financial security: It means setting aside for tomorrow for what we know we will need but not have the earning power to purchase. If we could work toward this idea, we know just from our own desires of wanting to buy land for a home, as an investment or for a place to get away that this is the right thing to do.As I write this I can imagine the pundits saying, “This is oversimplifying the issue.” How so? Real estate investors every day do this. Or because the only way to approach changing our land use policy is through small incremental steps. I hope not for our children’s sake. What stands between a truly worthy aspiration for our valley and its realization is political leadership with the courage to dream big.Arn Menconi is the chairman of the Eagle County Board of Commissioners.Vail, Colorado


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