Pitco open-space program seeking reauthorization | AspenTimes.com

Pitco open-space program seeking reauthorization

Pitkin County is seeking a 10-year extension for its Open Space and Trails program and the property tax that supports it on the Nov. 2 ballot.

The ballot question asks for a 50 percent increase in the tax, and asks for authority to issue additional bonds to raise money for land purchases.

In 1990, voters authorized the open-space program to operate for a 10-year period, with a 2.5-mil property tax and the authority to go into debt by up to $12 million, secured by bonds, to purchase open lands and develop trails.

The tax now generates about $3.4 million in revenues annually. So far, the program has used only about half of its bonding capacity.

Referendum 1A asks voters to boost the property tax by 50 percent to 3.75 mils. That increase, combined with the continuing rise in property values, will bring the program’s take to more than $5 million annually. The ballot language adds another $12 million in bonding authority. With $6 million in bonding capacity still available from the initial authorization, the program would have $18 million in borrowing capacity at its disposal if the reauthorization is approved next week.

The increase in the mil levy is deemed important because open land in Pitkin County is disappearing at a rapid rate, and because the land that remains is appreciating at an equally rapid rate. Privately owned open lands in Pitkin County have inflated at an average rate of 12 percent annually over the last 20 years, doubling in value about every six years.

Though the tax expires in 2000, the program’s founders and supporters chose to try for reauthorization on the 1999 ballot, to avoid competition with other tax measures on the 2000 ballot and to avoid being perceived as a lame-duck entity in property negotiations. They also reasoned that if the issue is defeated this year, they could craft a measure more palatable to the electorate for next year’s election, before the original program sunsets.

The open-space program has been responsible for preservation of more than 6,700 acres of open land. Some of the parcels have been protected by outright purchase and others by means of conservation easements. A conservation easement is a legal agreement purchased by a land preservation organization, preventing the sale or use of the property for development, while leaving the deed to the property in the hands of the owner.

Parcels protected by the program include private inholdings within public lands, such as the Hummingbird Lode in the Hunter Creek Valley, and critical deer and elk migratory routes and winter habitat, such as the Dart property on the Roaring Fork River near Old Snowmass.

The program has also acquired 20 miles of trail right of way and has constructed trails such as the Basalt-Old Snowmass Trail. This year, the program took over responsibility for maintenance of an additional 257 acres of county open-space properties and another 15 miles of trails, all of which were acquired by the county before the program began.

Preserving as much land as possible remains Open Space Director Dale Will’s goal for the next 10 years. Four types of properties especially desirable for preservation are scenic land, recreational land, wildlife habitat and agricultural land, he said. And all parts of Pitkin County get equal attention.

“We also try to spread our work throughout the county,” Will said. “We’ll continue to do that.”

Will is currently involved in negotiations with landowners on preservation of properties in all four of those categories – lands that are well distributed throughout the county, he said.

The program’s supporters kicked off their campaign to pass the ballot referendum as soon as the issue was assured a place on the ballot. The group of citizens that drafted the ballot language metamorphosed into a political action committee called Save Open Space, or SOS.

Led by attorney Tim McFlynn, SOS is campaigning for the program with newspaper ads, radio ads, posters, letters to the editor, and post cards.

One of the points the group is using to sell the program is that development of open lands adds more cost to county government than it adds revenue from taxes generated – so every acre saved also saves tax dollars by acquiring appreciating assets.

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