City to get $2 million a year from new tax for open space
The Aspen Parks Department doesn’t intend to create a land preservation bureaucracy to spend the half-cent open space tax passed by Aspen voters in November.
The intention of the Aspen City Council and staff is to spend as much of the money as possible on property. The city will try to take advantage of existing community expertise in land acquisition to make the most of the $2 million the tax will raise annually.
Aspen voters approved Referendum 2B, a half-cent sales tax increase for open space purchases, by a 2-to-1 margin in the Nov. 7 election. The ballot issue added to an existing sales tax used to purchase open space within, and adjacent to, the city.
Tabatha Miller, the city’s finance director, said the half-cent sales tax is expected to raise $2.05 million annually. This money will be stretched by a bonding authority that will give the program the ability to buy more properties early in the 25-year life of the tax, before prices go even higher.
Miller said the program may be able to raise up to $38 million through bonding, depending on interest rates.
“Realistically, $30 million is more like what we can afford,” Miller said, based on present interest rates. If rates go lower, greater bonding amounts would be possible.
A bit of the new money will no doubt be spent for administration. But the new funding is primarily intended for the purchase of properties.
“The council’s been very clear on how to spend this,” said Jeff Woods, city parks director. “It’s not for staff or maintenance or buildings. It’s for acquisition.”
More details of the acquisition program will be worked out in an upcoming work session with the county’s Open Space and Trails board and the City Council. Most likely, city parks purchases will rely on the land acquisition skills of Dale Will, director of Pitkin County’s Open Space program and others already on the city staff, Woods said.
“I don’t see us creating a whole new bureaucracy to administer this,” he said.
Woods said the Parks Department also plans to work with the Aspen Valley Land Trust to preserve land with conservation easements and other legal arrangements, to provide tax benefits to landowners.
“That will help us save the most land we can within our economic means,” Woods said. Prices of land in Aspen and Pitkin County won’t allow purchase money to go very far.
“You’re paying prices comparable to downtown Manhattan,” Woods said.
Three of the properties the city’s Parks and Open Space department intends to purchase are already well known. Bass Park, an informal park at Hopkins and Monarch, was purchased by the city in 1999. City voters elected to keep it as a park in November, though it was purchased almost entirely with housing money.
Parks and Open Space will now have the money to reimburse the city’s housing fund the $3.34 million that went toward Bass Park’s purchase, plus interest.
The parks department already has plans to partner with Pitkin County’s Open Space and Trails program to purchase two more properties. A deal is pending on a 37-acre parcel on the face of Smuggler Mountain owned by Mickie Flanagan, and negotiations are under way for a 70-acre ranch property next to North Star Nature Preserve, owned by Joy Smith.
The new open space tax was also aimed at the purchase of a number of other properties, mostly on the periphery of the city. These were earmarked as the city’s “Greenfrastructure” in the revised Aspen Area Community Plan approved this year.
In partnership with Pitkin County, the city will attempt to purchase the Greenfrastructure parcels as they become available, Woods said.
Woods said properties purchased with the tax are not in great danger of development at a later date. They are protected by a city law which requires that before a property purchased as open space can be developed for housing or any other purpose, the change of use must be approved in a vote of the electorate. The property must then be replaced with a property of equivalent monetary and natural value.
“There’s some bitterness in the community about Truscott,” Woods said. But the Truscott housing on 10 acres of former open space land was approved by a 3-to-1 margin at the polls, he said.
The old one-cent parks sales tax has been used for numerous open space purchases, including the Aspen Golf Course, Cozy Point Ranch and the Marolt Open Space. Trail construction and maintenance, and parks maintenance, have been funded by the tax, and the Nordic Council’s trail system receives some funding as well. Bonding based on the original tax will pay for the planned Iselin Park Recreation Center and other upcoming projects.
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