Future of open space up to voters | AspenTimes.com

Future of open space up to voters

Janet Urquhart

Open space protections in Pitkin County could extend to mineral and water rights under the proposed renewal of the Open Space and Trails program before voters in November.Referendum 1B on the Nov. 7 ballot proposes to extend the program through 2020, along with the existing property tax of 3.75 mills that supports it. In addition, county voters are asked to authorize borrowing up to $20 million – money to be repaid with tax proceeds – to finance the program’s ongoing efforts.New with the reauthorization is the ability to acquire mineral and water rights. So is putting the Aspen-Snowmass Nordic System’s 60 kilometers of groomed trails under the auspices of Open Space and Trails.The latter move would put maintenance of the Nordic system, which costs about $150,000 annually, under the Open Space and Trails budget. It receives funding from Aspen, Snowmass Village and Pitkin County through sales tax revenues – a less stable source of revenue than that of the open space property tax, noted Ben Dodge, president of the Aspen-Snowmass Nordic Council.The authorization to purchase mineral rights will help the program protect its land acquisitions, explained Dale Will, executive director of Open Space and Trails. Without them, the potential for mining or drilling on protected open space is possible, though it hasn’t happened yet, he said.The water rights provision will give the program the ability to protect aquatic habitat by securing adequate streamflows, whether it’s through the purchase of water rights or using the program’s revenues to compensate an owner of water rights who agrees to forgo a diversion.”There are several reaches of both the Roaring Fork and the Crystal [rivers] that suffer from inadequate flows, both in late summer and in drought years,” Will said.Voters originally approved the county’s publicly funded open space program – the first on the Western Slope – in 1990 and extended it for another 10 years with a 1999 vote. The property tax is set to expire in 2010 unless it is extended.Voters are asked to take that step now, a few years early, in part because the program’s existing bonding authority has been exhausted with the recent deal to acquire the Grange Ranch bordering Basalt.”That will pretty much tap out our buying capacity,” Will said.The authorization to borrow more money will allow the program to pursue additional conservation deals that involve greater sums than the tax generates on an annual basis. “There are opportunities right now that require the bond authorization in order to pursue them,” said Tim McFlynn, a member of the Open Space and Trails board of trustees.For more on Referendum 1B, see this week’s Aspen Times Weekly. For complete Aspen Times election coverage, visit http://www.aspentimes.com/election.Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is janet@aspentimes.com