Food production on Pitkin County open space?
November 6, 2011
REDSTONE – Pitkin County has a long history of preserving agricultural land for its aesthetic qualities. Now, stimulating local food production may be a goal, as well.
The board of trustees that oversees Pitkin County Open Space and Trails generally embraced the expanded focus during an all-day retreat Thursday in Redstone. The new mindset will be put to the test quickly – the board will soon take up a proposed management plan for the Sopris Chase parcel in Basalt. The plan envisions not only community gardening on part of the property, but will open the door to greenhouses – a move that could test the charter that governs the open space program.
The charter doesn’t allow the conversion of open space to nonhistoric uses, noted Dale Will, Open Space and Trails director. A 6-acre piece of Sopris Chase, land near Basalt High School that was purchased by the county and Town of Basalt last year, is a fertile hay field. A community garden would fit within its historic use, and was one of the stated goals for its purchase, but board members appeared less certain about whether greenhouses comply with the charter’s intent. Some weren’t sure whether such structures would fit within their desires for open space, either.
Board member Tai Jacober, a rancher, argued it would be a mistake not to embrace advancements in agriculture – including the growing boom in greenhouses – for agricultural properties, but trustee Hawk Greenway balked at the prospect of large greenhouses, or “industrializing a landscape.”
“I’d have to draw the line at commercial scale,” he said. “I want to keep on the table the aesthetic argument.”
“How do we ramp up local food production without destroying the scenery?” Will mused.
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What ultimately occurs at Sopris Chase will be on the board’s plate in the coming weeks, but in terms of future land acquisition, members expressed a willingness to consider some properties with food production in mind.
Conservation of agricultural lands has been one of the program’s mandates from the beginning, Will noted, along with preserving wildlife habitat, scenery and recreational lands.
“The program has never thought of actual productivity as something we need to worry about,” he said. “We conserve the land, but whether it’s producing food or just scenery and wildlife is something we’ve been neutral on.”
However, the Boulder County open space program, on which Pitkin County’s program was modeled to a large degree, actively purchases agricultural lands and leases them for crop production, Will said, asking the board if Pitkin County should take a similar approach. The county could help accommodate the growing “locavore” movement, which stresses eating locally grown food.
Some board members, though, were leery about subsidizing agriculture, agreeing food production wouldn’t pay for the cost of a land purchase.
“We need to understand the magnitude of that subsidy if we’re going to go down that road,” said member Howie Mallory.
“We subsidize recreation every day,” Will pointed out.
Farming or ranching aside, providing small parcels for gardens did appeal to some board members.
“That can be a lot in a subdivision for a community garden,” member Tim McFlynn said.
“I do think we should be looking at more spaces for community gardens – especially in the upper valley,” added board member Anne Rickenbaugh.
Board members agreed to make the promotion of local food production part of the open space program’s mission, and they agreed to relax a policy that states a preference for conservation easements over the outright purchase of land.
Purchasing a conservation easement allows, for example, the county to preserve a ranch for less money than buying it outright. The landowner retains ownership and can continue to ranch, but can also gain tax benefits and an influx of cash in return for giving up the ability to develop the property. A conservation easement, however, would be a difficult mechanism for forcing continued agricultural use of a property, according to Will. Easements spell out what can’t occur; they’ve not been used to mandate continued ranching or crop production.
“That would be an entirely new form of conservation easement,” he said.
The open space program owns about 4,000 acres of property outright, and has conserved roughly 14,000 acres through conservation easements, Will said. The program owns three irrigated agricultural parcels.
The county could employ both approaches to preserve agricultural land, McFlynn suggested. The county could buy a conservation easement to protect a ranch and carve out a piece of the acreage to purchase outright for food production, he said.
“We don’t have to do just one or the other,” McFlynn said.