Finding balance: Gunnison County has experience with land preservation tools

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Routt County is not alone in its efforts to balance new growth with preservation of working agriculture.

Multiple counties across Colorado are experimenting with land-use tools and voter-approved programs to direct tax dollars toward land preservation. Among these is Gunnison County.

John McClow is general counsel for the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District and a member of Gunnison Ranchland Conservation Legacy, which focuses its efforts solely on agriculture.

“We broker conservation easements to maintain working agriculture,” McClow said.

In the Upper Gunnison area, the organization has helped place easements on about 18,000 acres, which McClow said is a substantial percentage of the total area.

Most of the easements have a financial incentive for the landowner, he said.

“Often, they will use the money to invest in more land,” McClow said, adding that it helps keep the ranch operation financially stable.

“Our easement activity has slowed a little bit,” he said. “We’ve pretty much picked all the low hanging fruit.”

The organization is getting into more complicated easements on lands that are more valuable and take more money, many being larger and closer to Crested Butte.

Gunnison County directs some funds from its

1 percent sales tax toward purchasing development rights, about $300,000 per year, according to Mike Pelletier.

“Typically, we’re able to fund what’s requested,” said Pelletier, who is the county contact for the program. “We have limited funds, and people just don’t ask if they don’t think we can fund it.”

The tax dollars were reauthorized in 2012, he said, and are used to match dollars from elsewhere.

Gunnison County also has two new land-use tools to preserve open space, but as both were enacted after the real estate slowdown, neither have been used.

The first is a residential density transfer program, where a developer can pay a fee to reduce the required amount of open space in a subdivision from 30 percent to 15 percent. The fee would be 10 percent of the increase in value realized by subdividing the land and selling off lots.

“In theory, they would be able to make more from the extra house sales than paid in this fee,” Pelletier said, and the developer can space out payment during the course of lot sales.

The money from the fee would be used by the county to fund conservation easements through its land preservation board.

“The community gets much more open space out of it than it would get in a subdivision,” Pelletier said.

“For every dollar we give to local land trusts, they attract $12 from outside” the county, he said. “By doing that you leverage a lot of outside money.”’

Gunnison County also instituted a program to allow landowners to use county staff to help them through the subdivision process instead of paying a developer, but no bonus lots are associated with this process.

“They sell raw land price to developers right now,” Pelletier said about landowners.

The process is intended to allow landowners to bring their land far enough through the subdivision process to sell the property at a higher price to developers, who would develop the infrastructure and put in roads.

Pelletier said the program capitalizes on the landowners’ “love of the land, knowledge and desire to design it in a most compatible way with ranching as opposed to having a developer buy it and carve it into 35-acre blocks.”

Gunnison County’s large parcel incentive process, which encourages clustering by rewarding developers with extra lots, has been around for more than a decade but has seen only one or two subdivisions go through the process, according to Pelletier.

Water is a big consideration when developers are considering how to move forward with a subdivision, Pelletier said, and splitting land into 35-acre tracts gets some breaks from the state on that issue.

McClow said 35-acre parcel subdivisions are disruptive and can lead to water shortages.

Traditionally, water was moved around by ranches so each got enough for a hay crop, he said.

“When you bring in new subdivisions, cooperation doesn’t occur,” McClow said. “They’re not familiar with historic practices.”

McClow gave the example of Ohio Creek, where a new subdivision’s effect on irrigation led to shortages and a recent call on the creek, where holders of senior water rights must be satisfied before junior appropriations can divert water.

Avoiding subdivision of ranchland all together would be the best case scenario, McClow said, but that’s contrary to private property rights.

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