Support for Emerald sought

Group explores preservation options

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— There were some hard-hitting questions from local residents last night as the group trying to save Emerald Mountain held its first public forum.

The Emerald Mountain Partnership is the nonprofit group hoping to save about 6,400 acres of land from development. The land connects to the city-owned Howelsen Hill recreation area.

The land is worth about $17 million.

The audience was curious who would "run Emerald Mountain" and how much the purchase would really cost the taxpayers in property-tax increases or other measures.

Who would run it, whether it be the city, county or a recreational district, is still up in the air.

But partnership chairman Ben Beall said the audience and the residents were being asked to help determine those answers. Surveys were handed out at the meeting. One of the questions asked how much in property taxes were they willing to pay to acquire the 6,400 acres.

The answers ranged from $1,000 annually per $100,000 of assessed value to $5 annually, or none at all.

Adviser Susan Otis, who is helping the nonprofit group find alternative funding such as grants, said they want to see what the county's residents would offer first.

"We would then try to close the gap with grants," Otis said.

About 60 residents showed up to view maps of Emerald Mountain and to ask questions.

Most everyone was in full support of saving Emerald Mountain and people were willing to put their tax money where their mouths were.

"I pay property tax and I'd like to see our property tax go to open space," said Lynn Masters, who said she has an incredible view of Emerald Mountain from her Elk River Estates home.

But the view isn't what it is really all about, said Beall, who said most of Emerald Mountain can't be seen from Lincoln Avenue or the city proper.

"It would be a reserve," Beall said, " an area close to Steamboat where people can ride their bike and see the elk."

On this night, Beall was preaching to the choir.

Sixteen-year resident Theo Dexter called it a "jewel worth saving."

"We have a great opportunity to maintain a natural facility so close to town," Dexter said.

Steamboat resident Stu Woodward also voiced his concern for preserving Emerald Mountain.

"It would be terrible if the area was full of condominiums and trophy homes," he said.

To bring home the point, there was a map of what Emerald Mountain would look like if it had one home for every 35 acres.

"It's pretty scary looking from here," said Dexter when he noticed the map across the room.

Local attorney Alan Keefe mulled over the map.

"Think of it, each of these houses would have a dog, two cats," he laughed as he pointed toward the symbolic houses dotting the landscape.

His imagination turned to the increased traffic and people.

"This guy's got a four-wheeler," Keefe mused.

"It wouldn't be quite the same."

The Partnership's goal is to conserve all 6,400 acres with a multi-use purpose of ranching, wildlife preservation and recreational use.

The problem is, the land is held in trust by the State Land Board, which says the parcel is worth $17.2 million.

The land board has given the Emerald Mountain Partnership four years to come up with a plan to buy or sell the land as it sees fit. The board will then take the money and use it for public schools, which is the group's constitutional duty. If nothing is done during those four years, the board will take back the land and sell it to the highest bidder.

Board member Beverly Rave said they have a "fiduciary" responsibility to Colorado students.

She compared it to managing your own retirement trust.

"If it's worth $17 million and you're only making $40,000 a year, it's not good," Rave said about the money the board gets from the Emerald Mountain ranch leases.

"We can take that $17 million and reinvest the money at a higher profit."

The Partnership's ideal situation would have a "rich" conservation buyer putting the entire 6,400 acres into a conservation easement and taking a tax break.

But because that's unlikely, the partnership will do scientific surveys in addition to those surveys passed out last night on how much the community would pay to conserve the land.

If a plan for 100-percent conservation can't be reached by June, the partnership's next goal is to find a way to buy at least 1,500 acres (worth about $2 million) that connects to the Howelsen Hill recreational area.

Recreation could be the key to local support.

"We would definitely support whatever it takes," said Laura Kaster, holding her 15-month-old daughter.

"I want her to always be able to have it there," she said, explaining that their family hikes on the city property that goes right up to Emerald Mountain.

"It's right here in the city. We wouldn't have to pack up and travel" to get away, she said.

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