Pitkin County Referendum 1B: Spending money to save open space | AspenTimes.com

Pitkin County Referendum 1B: Spending money to save open space

Janet Urquhart

Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times

Two colors on Dale Will’s map of Pitkin County tell the story. Blocked out in bright red are “unprotected lands” – private holdings situated mostly on valley floors that border the Roaring Fork River and its tributaries.In forest green are once-private lands that have been protected, in large part through the efforts of the oldest, publicly funded open space program on Colorado’s Western Slope.While much of Pitkin County comprises federally protected national forest, it’s what happens to the properties shaded in red that residents may notice most.”Looking at all that red – if that were to be developed at high density, it could really change the rural character of Pitkin County,” reasoned Will, director the county’s Open Space and Trails program since May 1999.Protecting even some of it, though, will cost money. Given the stratospheric price of real estate in Pitkin County, it will cost a lot of money.

To date, local voters haven’t hesitated to tax themselves so that the county can buy the kinds of properties that make developers drool. On Nov. 7, open space advocates hope the electorate ponies up for the cause yet again.Referendum 1B proposes extension of the existing Open Space and Trails property tax of 3.75 mills for another decade, to 2020, and the borrowing of up to $20 million – money to be repaid with tax proceeds – to finance the program’s efforts. (The tax will cost a residential property owner $37.50 per $100,000 of assessed value in 2007.)Voters are also being asked to authorize some expanded uses of the funding – particularly to fold operation and maintenance of the Aspen-Snowmass nordic-ski-trail system into the program and to allow the purchase of mineral and water rights.In addition to buying open space or conservation easements that protect parcels from development, the program should have the ability to protect its acquisitions from mining and drilling, said Will, explaining the mineral rights provision.”It’s always been our fear that someone’s going to come in and threaten to dig up a property that we thought of as being preserved,” he said.In some cases, mineral rights have already been acquired or donated in conjunction with a land deal, but in the case of Jerome Park, an open space holding in the Spring Gulch area outside Carbondale, the county is appealing a pending gas lease sale.The ability to purchase water rights – or negotiate with existing water-rights holders – will give the program new leverage to protect streamflows where diversions threaten aquatic habitat.”That’s something I’ve been pushing for years. That’s huge,” said Tim McFlynn, a member of the Open Space and Trails board of trustees who helped put formation of the open space program before voters in 1990.And putting the nordic system’s roughly 60 kilometers of groomed trails under the auspices of Open Space and Trails makes sense, added Ben Dodge, president of the Aspen-Snowmass Nordic Council and an active participant in Save Open Space, the campaign committee pushing passage of Referendum 1B.

Annual maintenance of the system costs about $150,000, split between the county, Aspen and Snowmass Village. Each entity puts sales tax revenue toward the system – a more tenuous funding source than a dedicated property tax, Dodge noted.In addition, the open space program will explore opportunities to expand the nordic system, Will said. “There are a lot of possibilities out there.”County voters approved formation of Open Space and Trails in 1990 and extended it to 2010 with a 1999 reauthorization vote. While the program isn’t currently set to expire for three-plus years, it’s on the ballot now for a couple of reasons. For one, McFlynn said, there are acquisition opportunities out there now, but the program needs voter authorization to borrow more money in order to pursue them.Second, the county is considering putting a facilities bond issue on a future ballot, and open space advocates aren’t anxious to have an Open Space and Trails tax question before voters at the same time they’re being asked to spend money on other facilities.Voters authorized $12 million in debt in 1990 and another $12 million when the program was extended in 1999. With the recent deal to preserve the Grange Ranch near Basalt, in which the Open Space and Trails is a player along with Basalt and Eagle County, the Pitkin County program has pretty much exhausted its ability to borrow money, Will said.The existing tax produces about $7 million annually in revenue, of which about $1.2 million goes toward debt repayment, but without additional bonding capacity, high-priced deals are out of reach.”It’s not a lot of money when you’re trying to buy 1,000- and 2,000-acre ranches,” McFlynn said.The 246-acre Grange Ranch, for example, is a $5 million conservation deal for which the county ultimately hopes to spend $3 million, with its partners picking up the rest.

The acquisition of about 170 acres on Smuggler Mountain late last year cost $15 million, split between the county and the city of Aspen. The land, on the mountain flanking Aspen’s northeast side, had long been high on the list of local open space priorities.The construction of trails, another of the program’s mandates, scored an early crowd-pleaser with the Basalt-Old Snowmass Trail. Just this fall, the long-awaited Brush Creek Trail opened between Snowmass and Highway 82, and another segment of the Rio Grande Trail, between Willits and the Catherine Store Bridge, was finished. Eventually, the Rio Grande Trail is expected to offer bicyclists and pedestrians a link stretching from Aspen to Glenwood Springs.But by 2020, the halcyon days of Open Space and Trails acquisition may be over. Already, the program has preserved roughly 14,000 acres of land and created 40 miles of trails. By the time the tax is set to expire again, assuming voters extend it until then, the program may have accomplished all that it can. An ongoing tax to maintain its holdings may be all that’s necessary.”My prediction is, in another 15 or 20 years, most of the land will have been conserved or lost to development,” Will said. “I hope to clear up as much of the red on this map as we can by 2020.”In the end, the appearance of Pitkin County is going to reflect the existence of this open space program.”Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is janet@aspentimes.com