Routt County voters approved Referendum 1A on Tuesday, granting the continuation of a property tax to help preserve ranchlands and natural areas.
The passage of 1A will extend the Purchase of Development Rights program, which helps landowners place their lands in conservation easements protected against future development for the next 20 years. It also will increase the property tax that funds the program to a 1.5-mill levy.
The new tax rate is expected to generate about $1.25 million in its first year. The estimated cost for property owners is about $12 per $100,000 of home value.
Susan Corser, chairwoman of the Committee to Preserve Ranchlands and Natural Areas, said she was not surprised by the favorable results.
"I felt we had a pretty strong level of support going in," she said. "Open space, growth and management are issues that people in this community have overwhelmingly supported for many, many years."
And now, for many years to come.
"This will shape Routt County in that we'll have a more or less continuous band of open space for wildlife and irrigated agricultural areas," Corser said. "It doesn't necessarily limit growth, it directs where growth goes."
Passing the referendum this year, she said, was crucial for preserving Routt County's open spaces.
"It's important to try and get ahead of the game now rather than later," she said, citing the increase of land values across Routt County. "If we waited and tried to increase the mill levy in, say, five years, it would probably be too late."
It is hoped that the security of a 20-year extension would encourage more landowners to apply for conservation easements, she said.
"I think in the past, with a shortage of funds, some people have gotten discouraged and withdrawn their applications," Corser said, adding that her office also has had to turn away applicants because of a lack of funds. "When we turn away an application, we turn away large investments in our community."
The development rights program began in 1996, when voters approved a 1-mill levy to provide grants for landowners and fund the program. More than 7,400 acres, spread among 13 projects, have been preserved. That tax will sunset next year, and will be replaced by the plan approved Tuesday.
The referendum had strong support in the city of Steamboat Springs, but it lost votes in Oak Creek's precinct 8.
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