Our View: PDR delivers as promised
December 19, 2010
Six rural Routt County landowners were the beneficiaries of conservation easements totaling 5,225 acres last week. Securing the permanent easements that should forever preclude development from occurring on their properties cost county taxpayers $3.6 million through the Purchase of Development Rights program.
Before you choke on your Sunday breakfast, consider the following:
■ The Purchase of Development Rights program is a citizen-led effort that twice has been approved by voters. The most recent approval, in 2005, established a property tax rate of 1.5 mills for 20 years.
■ Community surveys and focus groups in the past two decades consistently have shown that residents and visitors put high value on open space and our area's ranching heritage.
■ Since the PDR program's inception in early 1997, it has helped conserve 21,815 acres of ranchland through all parts of Routt County.
We understand why reaction to the PDR program and the purchase of conservation easements on rural lands is troubling to some community members, especially during poor economic times. But the PDR program is not a get-rich-quick scheme for wealthy landowners, as some residents are prone to think. Most county ranchers are land rich but cash poor. Their way of life — one that has characterized this valley for more than 100 years — is increasingly difficult to sustain with each passing year. What works about the PDR program is that providing a portion of the value of the rancher's land to his or her family allows them to remain in agriculture while also preventing future development of their land. The resulting tax breaks often make it easier for those ranchers to pass on the family operation to their descendents.
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While rural lands far from the county's urban corridor may seem unlikely targets of development, especially today, the truth is that development takes many forms. Trophy ranches, for example, may retain valuable open space, but they often do so at the expense of traditional, historical agriculture operations. And that's what the PDR program twice pitched and sold to voters has sought to accomplish.
The program is overseen by a seven-member citizens board. Ranches considered candidates for the program evaluated by a set of criteria that includes the percentage of the land being donated to the easement by the ranching family; how long the family has lived on and operated the ranch; the visibility of the land to be conserved; the impact of the potential easement, including whether it is adjacent to another conserved property; and others.
Ranch families typically are asked to donate at least half the land to be placed under the conservation easement. Of the remaining half, the PDR program, on average, pays only 25 percent of the appraised value to the landowner. Remaining funds are leveraged through state and federal agencies like Great Outdoors Colorado. Land trusts like Yampa Valley Land Trust and the Colorado Cattlemen's Land Trust hold the conservation easements and are required to ensure the terms of the deals are being followed.
We'd love to see particular focus placed on conserving additional ranch lands close to Steamboat Springs and other highly visible corridors. We know much progress already has been made in doing so, and not solely through the PDR program. But we also realize there is significant value to conserving ranchland and historic agriculture operations in all areas of the county.
The truth is, the legacy of the PDR program and the preservation of extensive tracts of open land throughout the county is one that will be realized in decades, not months or even years. With that long-term vision in focus, it's clear the PDR program is accomplishing what its supporters told voters it would when they supported it in 1996 and 2005.