Tax would help land preservation

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— It has been nine years since voters approved a 1-mill property tax to preserve ranchlands and natural areas. More than 7,400 acres spread among 13 projects have been preserved, with another 1,400 acres on the way.

On Nov. 1, Routt County voters will decide whether they want the Purchase of Development Rights program to continue after the tax sunsets in 2006.

Referendum 1A proposes that the property tax increase to 1.5 mills and last for 20 years.

The fund would raise about $1.25 million in the first year, costing property owners about $12 per $100,000 of home value.

The additional funding would help conserve additional lands -- currently, some people who are willing to put conservation easements on their lands do not receive funding, said Susan Corser, chairwoman of the Committee to Preserve Ranchlands and Natural Areas.

By placing land under a conservation easement, the landowner in effect has sold some or all development rights to the land, so the land can be permanently protected. The land can be sold or transferred, but the restriction remains in place.

Landowners maintain the land and can use it for agricultural and other purposes, and taxes still are paid on the land.

Overall, preserving the land benefits water quality (as many lands are near waterways) and wildlife habitat, helps maintain the open space and views that encourage tourism and preserves working ranches, Corser said.

"Steamboat is a very unique and special place, and people are discovering that and are attracted to that," Corser said. "One purpose of this program is to not destroy what makes (Steamboat) so special."

It's important for the PDR program to continue, Corser said, because it is important to preserve enough property to create a critical mass of unfragmented ranchland in Routt County.

People interested in preserving their land by placing a conservation easement on it first go to a qualified land conservation organization, such as the Yampa Valley Land Trust or The Nature Conservancy. The organization helps the landowner apply for funding from PDR and other granting organizations.

When landowners propose a project, they donate almost half of the value of the conservation easement, Corser said.

Of the remaining cost of the conservation easement, PDR funds on average pay 21 percent, and other federal, state and local funds pay 32 percent. PDR funds make it possible to leverage the other funds by providing a local match, Corser said.

Land conservation organizations hold the land in conservation easements.

The PDR fund is overseen by a resident advisory board, which has developed criteria for approving projects through public input. The advisory board makes recommendations to the Routt County commissioners, who ultimately decide.

No more than 2 percent of the PDR funds is used for administration of the program.

Routt County helped lead the way to conserving land when the PDR program was passed in 1996, Corser said. Many other counties have since followed suit.

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