Group abandons tax plan to buy parcel of Emerald

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— The Emerald Mountain Partnership has abandoned thoughts of seeking a countywide property tax to help fund the purchase of 6,345 acres on a mountaintop just outside of Steamboat Springs.

City Councilman Ken Brenner and County Commissioner Doug Monger said the subject of the property tax could come up again but probably only if it were tied to a specific proposal that would allow the local group to protect the mountain from extensive development. Speaking on behalf of the partnership, they based their conclusions on a recent community survey.

Fewer than 60 percent of the 254 people who completed the survey supported a property tax to achieve conservation on Emerald Mountain. That wasn't enough.

The land in question is part of the School Trust Lands given to Colorado when it gained statehood. They are dedicated to generating funds for public education, and are administered by the State Land Board. The board is obligated to seek maximum return on behalf of the schools, and in recent years, it has identified Emerald Mountain as a parcel that could yield a greater return if it were sold for development.

Historically, it has been leased to local ranchers for cattle grazing.

Brenner and Monger represent local government on the Partnership. They said Monday the results of the survey show that although there is ample public support for conserving Emerald Mountain, there isn't enough support for a tax to take it to the voters and expect success. Instead, the Partnership will begin scrutinizing a range of options that would bring the private sector in on the purchase. The Partnership still has four years remaining on an option to buy the land.

Brenner said he remains hopeful the Partnership can achieve its goals.

"I'm optimistic. I really do believe something is going to take place in the next year," he said. "We still can accomplish our goals, which is agricultural use and wildlife habitat conservation with some limited, compatible recreational use."

The Emerald Mountain Partnership mailed out 1,500 surveys in late May to registered voters in Steamboat and the adjacent area. The 254 surveys that were completed and returned indicated 82.5 percent rated preserving Emerald Mountain "very important."

The goal of preserving wildlife habitat also received a high rating. Of the respondents, 76.6 percent rated it the most important use of the property. That was 20 points more than any other goal for the property.

The survey was based on the assumption the partnership would pursue a strategic goal of conserving 100 percent of the 6,345 acres on Emerald Mountain.

When it came to paying property taxes, a little more than half of the respondents showed support for three different options.

The survey asked people if they would support a $6.81 increase in their annual taxes for a span of 10 years to purchase a public trail. Of the respondents, 52 percent indicated their support. The number of people responding affirmatively grew to 57 percent when asked if they would support an increase of $18.18 annually for 10 years to purchase the trail plus conservation easements on the rest of the parcel. Finally, 56.35 percent said they would support an increase of $12.16 annually for 20 years to purchase the trail component and the conservation easements.

A consultant hired to advise the Partnership on the results of the poll said the survey showed moderate support for the tax proposals, but it wasn't enough to go forward with confidence, Brenner and Monger said.

The survey has a margin of error of about 6 percent in either direction. Polling experts at RRC Associates in Boulder said when the figures are matched with the size of the sample, there is a possibility the tax question wouldn't gain enough support to pass.

"There's a lot of difference between supporting a tax in a survey and gong to the polls to actually vote for it," Monger said.

He said the Partnership has been in contact with a variety of private parties interested in the Emerald Mountain land. The interest ranges from neighboring property owners to developers who might be interested in a low-density project on a portion of the land.

The ideal situation might involve a single buyer of a large homesite, coupled with entities interested in conserving the land, Monger said.

"We're talking about someone having a gentleman's ranch on the back side of Cow Creek," Monger said. "Along with some conservation buyers. That's potentially a good deal for the community. I'd prefer to see one 24,000-square-foot house vs. 30, 3,000-square-foot houses."

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