Program committed to preserving open spaces

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— After three years of collecting county tax dollars to help buy the building rights on private land, the Purchase of Development Rights program is still plugging away at it goals to help preserve open spaces in Routt County.

The latest effort by the PDR program includes chipping in to buy development rights on the Warren Ranch.

The program committed $500,000 to help preserve 1,590 acres of the Warren Ranch, which is off Routt County Road 129.

That is the largest of four projects in which PDR has been involved. The project has spent a total of $1.17 million on building rights on 2,164 acres of Routt County.

In essence, it's public money going toward preserving land in the Yampa Valley, PDR Advisory Board President Carl Vall said.

"That's where the PDR Board feels a responsibility," Vall said.

Other projects PDR has had a financial hand in are 135 acres of the Stanko Ranch, 114 acres of the Robinson Ranch and 325 acres of the Wilhelm Ranch.

Each one of the those transactions was finalized this year.

In 1996, voters in Routt County narrowly passed a one-mill increase on property taxes to dedicate to the PDR program. That means one cent of every residential property tax dollar and three cents of every commercial property tax dollar goes to preserving open spaces.

In 1997, the first year the program collected the tax money, $350,000 was put into the fund. With an increase in assessed value of the county, the fund now generates $500,000 a year.

Though a hefty sum, it's not much when it comes to multimillion-dollar land deals, Vall said.

"That's the whole Warren Ranch deal for us," Vall said of the yearly amount.

For the Warren Ranch, the $500,000 was only a piece of the pie. The Yampa Valley Land Trust had to raise $2 million to make sure the land deal went through.

That's the inevitable problem when it comes to nonprofit organizations buying the building rights of expensive property, Routt County Commissioner Ben Beall said.

"There's never enough money," he said. "Everyone is going to have to realize that. We have to look at this at all different angles."

Beall supported the PDR tax in 1996 and said it has been a successful program. However, the $1.17 million of local taxes that went to protecting land didn't make that much of a dent. If conservationists are serious about protecting more private land from development, they'll have to find different ways to do it, Beall said.

In the midst of the preserving land for open spaces are the agricultural producers who are selling portions of their property to a trust most often donating between 45 percent to 65 percent of the land, said Susan Otis of the Yampa Valley Land Trust.

"They do it because they have a strong philosophical commitment to the land," Otis said.

Patsy Wilhelm sold the development rights of 325 acres of her ranch with help from the PDR fund. There definitely was a conservation aspect of her decision to do so, she said. A mountain that was included in the deal had her husband's ashes spread on it. However, selling the development rights gives her children tax breaks when they inherit the property and devalues the land so the death tax isn't as high.

"With the death tax, my children couldn't afford to inherit this place," Wilhelm said. "I want to see them on this land."

But the decision to sell the building rights was a tough one, which she mulled over for three years. It didn't come without criticism from friends, either, Wilhelm said.

Opponents said she would be selling away options that her children would have had in the future, Wilhelm said.

Wilhelm didn't see it that way. Portions of the ranch remain with the development rights intact.

"I'm not forcing them to stay on the land, but I'm giving them the opportunity if they want to," Wilhelm said.

Though a profit was made in the deal for Wilhelm, the county money didn't make her wealthy, she said.

"I understand that I could have divided it up into 35 acres and be a pretty wealthy woman," she said. "But maybe I see wealth in a different way than other people."

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