Voters to decide Garfield County open lands program
August 14, 2012
GLENWOOD SPRINGS – Voters in the Nov. 6 election will decide whether Garfield County should have a voluntary program to preserve open space with high agricultural, recreational or wildlife values.
At their meeting Monday, the Garfield Board of County Commissioners unanimously approved language for a question on the subject for the Nov. 6 general election ballot.
That agreement didn’t come easily, as commissioner Mike Samson insisted on including the word “tax” in the ballot measure title to remind voters that the program would be funded through a 0.25 percent sales tax increase.
But members of the the Garfield Legacy Project (GLP), who have been working to design the open lands program, were pleased nonetheless.
“We’re confident that this initiative can pass, and now we’ll start planning our fall campaign,” said Mary Noone, a Glenwood Springs resident who is co-chair of the GLP.
If approved, the program would be similar to those operating in other Colorado counties, including Pitkin, Eagle, Routt, Larimer and Jefferson.
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It would be funded through a 0.25 percent sales tax increase on everything but food, machinery, fuel and building materials sold in the county. It is estimated that the increase would raise $2 million per year to fund a countywide open space program.
Money generated from the tax would be put into an open space fund, then used to finance a variety of conservation transactions. These could include:
• Conservation easements, where landowners are paid to forfeit their development rights but still own the land and may use it for agriculture.
• A transfer of development rights, where landowners trade away the right to build on one parcel in exchange for development rights elsewhere.
• Simple cash purchases of land.
Prior to Monday’s meeting, the commissioners had already planned to put the issue on the November ballot. But a bit of haggling over semantics remained. Commissioner Mike Samson insisted that the word “tax” should be included in the title of the ballot question, in the interest of transparency.
“I think it’s safe to say that people in western Garfield County are more conservative than people in eastern Garfield County,” said Samson, who represents the county’s western edge. “Everyone is going to want to know specifically whether their taxes are going to be raised or not.”
In previous meetings, Commissioner Tom Jankovsky had warned the GLP advocates that current economic conditions may make county voters leery of a tax increase. Yet a survey of county residents conducted by the GLP in June found that a slim majority – between 52 and 58 percent- would vote in favor of the program if given a chance.
Nevertheless, to appease the commissioners, project advocates agreed to include the words “sales tax” in the title, thus dubbing the ballot question the “Ranchlands, Rivers, and Recreation Economy Sales Tax Measure.”
“It’s really important for people to know that this isn’t a property tax, or a tax on ranching,” said Noone of the GLP. “This is about conservation, and sometimes if you want something good, you’ve got to pay for it.”
In arguing for the open lands program, advocates have cited the centrality of agriculture in Garfield County’s economy, as well as the value of open space and trails expressed in the Garfield County Comprehensive Plan, a document that governs county land use.
They’ve also used the results of their June survey in urging commissioners to let voters decide the program’s fate.
“When 77 percent of those surveyed said they wanted this on the ballot, the commissioners couldn’t say no,” said Noone.