Purchase of Development Rights program had busy 2011 | SteamboatToday.com

Purchase of Development Rights program had busy 2011

— On the heels of the program's busiest year to date, members of the Purchase of Development Rights program say they have three conservation projects pending for 2012 and about $1.9 million of taxpayer money available for those and future projects.

"Last year was undoubtedly the most active year we've ever had in terms of completing projects," veteran Purchase of Development Rights program board member Ron Roundtree said Monday.

The eight projects finalized by the PDR program in 2011 put just more than 5,376 acres of land under conservation easements, effectively eliminating any chance of future development on that land. Since it was established in 1997, the voter-approved PDR program has helped pay for easements on 27,192 acres of Routt County land.

The PDR board, made up of volunteer Routt County residents, committed about $3.7 million to the eight easements in 2011. The busy year was made possible because two large projects that had been pending for a lengthy time were withdrawn, freeing up more than $1 million, Roundtree said. The number also was boosted by the fact that in an era of greater scrutiny of the easements and the necessary appraisals, it's taking longer to put the deals together. Some of last year's easements were pending for more than two years, Roundtree said.

Funding for the county's PDR program comes from 1.5 mills of voter-approved property taxes that were last renewed in 2006. The PDR program is intended to give landowners an economically attractive alternative to selling land for development by instead compensating them for the development rights they agree to put under a conservation easement. By giving up those future development rights, the owners typically donate more than half of the appraised value of the land.

Ownership of the property remains with the landowner, who can use the land for purposes — often agriculture — that are in keeping with the terms of the easement.

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PDR projects are brought to the board by a sponsoring conservation organization like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, The Nature Conservancy or a land trust.

The PDR projects here range from 2,711 acres at Wolf Mountain Ranch visible from U.S. Highway 40 east of Yampa Valley Regional Airport to the 13 acres of Yampa River frontage on the west side of Steamboat Springs known as the Fournier property.

Compared to the $15.1 million in taxpayer funds that have been applied to conserving 48 properties since 1997, applicants have foregone, or donated, $26.8 million in property value. The public share represents 26.3 percent of all of the deals, and the landowners' share equates to about 48 percent. Other agencies have contributed almost $13.9 million to the transactions.

The concept of PDR relies on the contributions from landowners and third-party entities, including conservation organizations, to leverage the public dollars, Roundtree said. However, he said he would make a point of telling the Routt County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday that in just the last year, the funds available from outside agencies has dwindled significantly.

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation brought a large sum to the newest easement on Wolf Mountain Ranch last year, which conserved 1,330 acres, Roundtree said. But in the future, he sees less money available from all third-party sources, including Great Outdoor Colorado, because of heightened competition for those dollars.

Oil drilling, conservation

PDR Chairwoman Claire Sollars confirmed Monday that her board will explore the implications of growing interest in oil and gas exploration here for future conservation easements during a public meeting. Roundtree said he expects that meeting to take place March 29.

One oil well has been drilled within the boundaries of a conservation easement on Wolf Mountain and another is contemplated on the Camilletti Ranch, which went under an easement in 2011.

The discussion could revolve around the desirability of acquiring surface easements where the subsurface mineral rights are detached — owned by a third party — and how those easements should be approached, Sollars said.

Or, in the case that the same party owns both surface and subsurface rights, the board could consider requiring that the easement apply to both surface and subsurface rights, Sollars said.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com

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