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Forget TDR’s, let other preservation programs work

Ira WertenteilLower Blue

I’m one of those homeowners living on a “20-acre postage stamp” (actually we live on a 40-acre postage stamp on the Lower Blue), as County Commissioner Bill Wallace described my neighborhood in your Nov. 16 cover story, “Saving the Lower Blue.”I was a bit offended by the assumption that 35-acre developments are bad and ugly and that the bigger land owners on the Lower Blue, who in most cases are already “very rich,” need to be paid for not developing their property’s so that developers can build even denser housing elsewhere in the county. If the country commissioners don’t like 20-acre parcels, they should instruct planners to stop approving them.Personally, I think that 35-acre parcels are a lot more democratic than 1,500-acre parcels.The average Joe has a chance of owning one someday and raising kids with horses or maybe even a family pet goat or a 4-H pig or sheep.There are tons of wonderful 35-acre developments around the state (there are some really beautiful ones in Routt County), where all the homeowners have use of extensive horse trails, often with National Forest access, and where the community covenants keep fencing down to a minimum and maintain the communal pastures. But my problem with the transfer of development rights (TDR) proposal is that there are already some excellent programs in place statewide that work very well to encourage large property owners not to subdivide their ranches. Large land owners can already donate the development rights on their properties to land trusts and in return receive conservation easements that can be worth millions of dollars in federal and state tax credits. And the state program is even more generous because landowners can sell their Colorado state tax credits for cash either to the state or to wealthy individuals or corporations.These existing programs are actually so generous that wealthy land owners can often make more money giving up the development rights on their properties than they’d get if they sold their land outright.And they get to keep their land to sell another day. There are equally generous programs in place for the poor, old-timer ranchers that want to get cash for their properties without moving off their land or selling out to a developer. They can sell the development rights on their properties for cash and they can keep their properties to sell down the road. These programs are actually so generous that a careful look at them reveals how odiferous they actually are because they usually end up benefiting the already “very rich” who in return for giving up some of the development rights on their properties can end up not having to pay federal or state income taxes for years. And when rich folks don’t pay Colorado income taxes they’re not paying for schools and roads which increases the tax burden on the average working Joe. But these programs do work and there are hundreds of thousands of acres under easement across the state.Most importantly these conservation easement programs actually work better than TDR programs because they’re carefully monitored and administered by numerous federal and state agencies to insure that an entire ranch won’t be developed.With a locally administered TDR program, ranchers could end up selling their development rights for millions of dollars and still sell out to a developer who’ll subdivide their ranch into 20-acre parcels instead of 40-acre parcels. It’s also important to recognize that while the theory behind conservation easements is that the value of a large parcel of land will decrease after the development rights are stripped off it, the historical reality is that these properties actually go up in value even with easements placed on them because the “very very rich” will pay a huge premium for a large parcel of undeveloped land. So given how generous and effective the existing easement programs are, why do we need additional programs to further help the rich ski area developers and the rich landowners on the Lower Blue.I think the county commissioners should let the existing programs do their job. When it comes to increases in density next to the slopes, if the planning commissions and building departments want to let Vail Resorts put 400 homes on 4,000 square feet of land at the bottom of Peak 10, then they should just go ahead and grant them the variances and rezone those properties.All the TDR’s will do is let developers strong arm the planning commissions to rezone properties without the surrounding neighbors having as much say on the rezoning process as they have under the current system.I’d prefer to see the local planning departments decide how zoning should be modified and variances issued.


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