State faces shortfall in open space funding
SUMMIT COUNTY – Colorado faces a $1.2 billion funding gap for land preservation efforts during the next 10 years, the Colorado Conservation Trust announced in a landmark report earlier this week.”What we do for the next decade is critical in determining what Colorado’s landscape will look like for generations to come,” said Colorado Conservation Trust (CCT) executive director Will Shafroth, calling on state lawmakers to increase public conservation funding by $50 to $75 million per year, as well as seeking $10 million to $25 million in private funding. In Summit County, according to the report, 8,235 acres have been tabbed for protection during the next five years at a cost of $26.1 million. Summit County should have about $18 million available through dedicated funding sources, leaving a $7.9 million gap. In Eagle County, 8,400 acres have been identified for protection at an estimated cost of $29.75 million, but only about half of that is projected to be available via dedicated funding sources, leaving a $14.87 million gap. The picture is similar in Pitkin County, where the 14,160 acres have been identified for protection. With high land values around Aspen and in the Roaring Fork Valley, the estimated cost of that protection runs to a staggering $59.6 million. Pitkin County faces a potential $37.2 million funding gap.
Summit County is better prepared than most when it comes to funds for open space, but it still faces a “critical crossroads” in the coming years, as the current property tax mill levy dedicated to open space is set to expire in 2009, according to Todd Robertson, director of the open space and trails program.”Local funding is the key, and Summit County is ahead of the game,” Shafroth said. “But the challenges you face are increasing land values,” he added, explaining that there is intense competition for the most desirable land.Along with inadequate and uneven funding, the report also said the state lacks an integrated statewide policy for land protection, with nonprofits limited by their geographic scope, while public agencies face political constraints.Possible statewide solutionsIn terms of statewide funding, Shafroth said that the potential passage of Referendums C and D could open up some possibilities for land conservation funding. If those measures don’t pass, or even if they do, Shafroth said there could be a push toward a some sort of ballot initiative on open space funding.
Shafroth said polls show there is widespread public support for land preservation.”Who would have thought that 77 percent of the voters in Colorado Springs would support (public expenditures) open space,” Shafroth said, referring to a recent vote in the city he described as “the most fiscally conservative and anti-tax community in Colorado, or perhaps the entire West.”The report recommends development of a statewide land conservation strategy, as well as some specific fiscal measures, including a revision of the tax credit structure to ensure that every transaction results in a substantial public benefit.Protecting our sources of waterProtecting water rights along with the land is another important focus, the report indicated. A statewide preservation strategy should also include a way to clarify and identify ways to streamline the process for protecting the use of water rights for instream flows.
“We’re seeing more and more opportunities to protect the water along with the land,” said Robertson, adding that many of Summit County’s voluntary conservation easements include language to address water. But in many cases involving open space purchases – in the Upper Blue or Snake River Basin, for example – the water rights were stripped from the land long ago or never had water rights to begin with.The report also said counties should have more flexibility to increase minimum lot sizes subject to development review. The 35-acre subdivisions, sometimes are derided as cookie-cutter ranchettes, account for 80 percent to 90 percent of the 2 million acres of exurban development that constitutes much of the exurban sprawl in Colorado, according to Shafroth. Properties divided into lots of at least 35 acres are, by state law, exempt from local government subdivision regulations.The CCT report is online at http://www.coloradoconservation trust.org.Bob Berwyn can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 228, or at email@example.com.
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