Open space group trying to get Garfield County sales tax on fall ballot
GLENWOOD SPRINGS – When a group of open space program managers and supporters from around the state gathered in Glenwood Springs last fall for the yearly Colorado Open Space Alliance conference, there was a bit of irony involved.
Neither Garfield County nor the city of Glenwood Springs have formal open lands programs, although past attempts have been made to convince voters to enact tax measures to support such an effort.
But a new group of Garfield County residents is now working to add the county to the list of 20 other Colorado counties that have open space programs.
The Garfield Legacy Project organized in 2009 as a coalition of citizens and partner organizations, such as the Aspen Valley Land Trust (AVLT), to begin exploring ways to preserve open lands in Garfield County.
Last fall, the group conducted surveys and hosted public meetings, from which it developed a “Greenprint for Conservation and Economic Opportunity.” That effort was funded primarily by a $75,000 Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO) grant.
Now, the Garfield Legacy Project is busy putting together a program proposal and sales tax question to present to voters in the November election.
A one-quarter-cent (0.25 percent) countywide sales tax is estimated to generate $2.5 million annually that would fund the program, according to Mary Noone of Glenwood Springs, one of the founding board members for the Legacy Project.
The group is preparing to start polling county residents to gauge support for such a tax. County commissioners would need to approve the ballot question and have said they would like to see strong enough support through polling to justify putting it on the ballot.
In 2002, voters within the Garfield County portions of the Roaring Fork School District, stretching from Glenwood Springs to Carbondale, did pass a ballot question forming a special open space district. A governing board was also elected; however, the accompanying property tax mill levy question, intended to fund the district’s open space efforts, failed.
“We had meetings for about a year, but nothing ever got done because we didn’t have a revenue source,” said Glenwood Springs attorney Charlie Willman, who was part of the earlier effort. “People lost energy to try to do anything after that.”
The district still exists, and would need to be formally dissolved if the new attempt to start a countywide open space program is successful, Willman said.
A prior attempt to pass a sales tax in Glenwood Springs for a city open space and trails program also failed.
But the time is ripe for a renewed attempt to pass a countywide sales tax, Noone said. She cited statistics showing that 66 percent of the current sales taxes in Garfield County come from visitors or those passing through the county.
“I believe Garfield County is ready for something like this,” Noone said. “The Garfield Legacy Project is about leaving a legacy for future generations and not a landscape covered with subdivisions and development.
“An open lands program would at least give landowners an opportunity to protect their land,” she said.
The proposed program would be completely voluntary, allowing landowners to work with groups like AVLT to place conservation easements on their property.
Although Garfield County does not have an active open lands program, AVLT has worked with several landowners in the county to purchase development rights and place conservation easements on their properties.
“We are heavily involved in the efforts of the Garfield Legacy Project,” AVLT Executive Director Martha Cochran said. “This would be a way to give even more landowners an alternative to do something with their land, and particularly some of the bigger projects.”
In the long run, Cochran said, the cost of buying development rights from willing sellers and protecting that land in a conservation easement is less than the cost of having rural subdivisions for which the county must provide services.
The program would also need to be tailored to meet Garfield County’s needs and not necessarily be modeled after open space programs in Eagle and Pitkin counties, added Legacy Project board member Phil Holliwell.
“It’s important to look at what other counties have done but come up with what works best for Garfield County,” he said. “What we want is to give landowners an opportunity to protect their land, so that it’s a win-win for the landowner and for the citizens.”
One program in Colorado that the Legacy Project is looking to model its program after is in Routt County, which has a taxpayer-funded Purchase of Development Rights program.
Similar to that program, the Legacy Project is proposing to establish an open space board to oversee the funds. It would be appointed by the county commissioners and made up of Garfield County residents. Interested landowners would be invited to present potential conservation easements to the open space board.
The “Greenprint” developed by the Legacy Project last fall identifies several other benefits of open lands programs, including:
• Conserving working ranches and farms.
• Preserving and enhancing recreation and tourism opportunities.
• Preserving water quality and quantity.
• Creating open land buffers around communities.
• Enhancing trail systems.
• Protecting wildlife habitat and native plants.
“Open space and trails also benefits tourism and helps stimulate the economy,” said Legacy Project board member Helen Andersen. “And by finding a way to preserve working ranches and farms, it means the owners can release the equity in their land and keep it in the family.”
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