Summit County shells out $2.3 million in 2016 open space buys
Summit County marked the 20th anniversary of its open space program with something of a spending spree, doling out its largest sum of money on property protections in nearly a decade.
The $2.3 million in land purchases for 2016 spanned 21 acquisitions and preserved 461 acres. That averages out to nearly two investments per month. Similarly, the county made 20 buys to safeguard 90 acres in 2015.
“In the past 20 years it’s been about one a month, but it’s been significantly more than that in the last couple years,” said Brian Lorch, director of the county Open Space & Trails Department. “Really, we are pretty opportunistic when it comes to what’s available and what’s for sale that meets our criteria.”
Established in 1996, the department snatches up area lands based on several overarching standards, among them recreational value, unique qualities, cultural relevance and scenic view corridors. The 272-acre Doig Homestead, for instance, a $2-million acquisition last year north of Silverthorne, allowed the county to check a number of those boxes: maintaining spectacular vistas, its status as an important wildlife and wetlands area, and the property’s historic agricultural significance.
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“It’s not all about recreation,” added Lorch, who’s been in the lead open space role since late 2007. “Certainly recreation takes a big piece because that’s so much of Summit County and the desire of the people to recreate. But we have broader goals than just that.”
The county department operates on an annual budget of about $1.25 million through a voter-backed property tax first approved in 1999, and to date has sheltered nearly 16,000 total acres. The present mill levy lasts through 2022, but the county tries to leverage those precious dollars to snag more funding through partnerships with the towns or state organizations such as Colorado Lottery-supported Great Outdoors Colorado grants. In December, the latter chipped $675,000 toward the massive Doig acquisition.
Two purchases with Breckenridge on some prominent mining claims in the Golden Horseshoe area that helped ensure permanent public access to several popular motorized and non-motorized routes were another 2016 highlight. Of the pair, the 25-acre Gibson Hill expansion, with its 50-50 ownership model, was the more expensive with a price tag of $715,000.
The county also worked directly with the region’s other municipalities last year to build or upgrade trails in Dillon, Frisco and Silverthorne. In addition, Summit spent approximately $245,000 on four land parcels in three acquisitions on the western boundary of Silverthorne to bolster connections from the town to the Mesa Cortina area, with Silverthorne kicking in a contribution of about $25,000. In 2017, county Open Space & Trails hopes to formalize more of those split-possession agreements with the other towns as it already has in place with Breckenridge.
Whether or not those pacts are settled this year, the obstacle of overcoming the region’s gold rush mining legacy remains. As a result, reacquiring these private lands to make sure Summit’s hillsides steer clear of being dotted with homes and development is still the county’s primary objective.
“One of the big-picture issues is the fact that we are pretty unique,” Commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier said of the county. “What we’ve been focusing on for the last 20 years is trying to get more continuity with how the land is managed and not having private properties in what’s otherwise the national forest and wildlife habitat. That’s just the history that we’re left with.”
Through the recommendations made by its 11-member, citizen-appointed Open Space Advisory Council, the Board of County Commissioners will continue to direct staff to make annual land purchases, retain trail entries and make improvements to current pathways used for recreation. In turn, the 21st year of protection efforts should look a lot like the 20 that preceded it.
“There’s always a number of them on the radar screen,” said Lorch. “One of the missions of our program is to pay fair-market value. So there’s always a lot of them where we’re waiting and hoping the price will come to a point that we’re at.”
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