Voters to decide on tax increase | SteamboatToday.com

Voters to decide on tax increase

Christine Metz

The Routt County Board of Commissioners agreed Tuesday to ask voters to increase property taxes to help fund the conservation of ranch land and natural areas.

Encouraged by favorable survey results, the commissioners said they will go forward with asking voters to renew a mill levy dedicated to preserving land in Routt County. They also were in favor of having the mill levy increased from 1 to 1.5 mills and of proposing that the Purchase of Development Rights program be extended for another 20 years.

The PDR Citizens Advisory Board asked the commissioners Tuesday to place the question on November’s ballot and continue what it said has been a very successful program.

“It is higher and is more money, but the reality is openland values have escalated much faster than we see in the 1 to 1.5 mills,” Commissioner Doug Monger said.

In 1996, Routt County voters became the first in the intermountain West to establish a tax dedicated to a county-funded PDR program.

The Citizen’s Advisory Board distributes funds generated by the tax. The board reviews applications submitted by ranchers and other landowners interested in using the program to preserve their land.

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In the PDR program, the development value of the land is assessed. Landowners whose property is chosen for inclusion in the program are paid a percentage of the development value and donate the remainder in exchange for putting the property under a conservation easement.

Currently, the property tax generates about $700,000 a year. The additional half mill would bring that total to a little more than $1 million annually. The current tax will not expire until the end of 2007, and the county could get a second chance to go to the voters in 2006 if the proposal does not pass this November.

“Hopefully, we will go forward and be successful. If not, we have another year to do it,” advisory board menber Jane McLeod said.

Commissioners and advisory board members discussed the need to raise the mill levy. Board members said that with the escalation in land values, the program needs more funding to continue conserving land at the same rate.

Board members also said they have had many projects they could not do because the funding was not available.

“The PDR board has really struggled to award dollars to projects they have reviewed, and it has had to limit dollars to some of those projects,” Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak said.

Although the board has worked to preserve 8,000 acres, board member Alan White said that 500,000 acres of ranch land still exists.

“If you look at the map, we haven’t even started on the surface,” Monger said.

In June, Public Opinion Strategies was hired to do a survey about the Purchase of Development Rights program and renewing the property tax that funds it. The company conducted 300 phone interviews throughout the county.

The survey found that 64 percent of those interviewed would support a proposed measure to fund land preservation. Of those interviewed, 31 percent said they would not support a measure. Similar percentages were found when residents were asked whether they would support a tax increase to preserve land in Routt County.

Stahoviak said that when the PDR program was approved in 1996, it passed by 94 votes.

Those surveyed ranked land near rivers and streams and land used as wildlife habitat as the areas that should have the highest preservation priority. Preserving working ranches, family ranches and the Western way of life received lower rankings.

Board member Ron Roundtree said the poll was instrumental in deciding what question to ask the voters in November.

“Before the poll, we would have said, ‘Ask for the same amount,'” he said. “We don’t want to appear greedy. But, if the poll is a reflection of the people’s desires in the community, I would be in favor of asking for an increase and proving to the citizens we know what to do with it.”

Much of the money generated by the program is used to leverage funds from private donations and grants, board members said.

A conservation easement is a legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust that permanently limits the uses of the land to protect its conservation value. The landowner continues to own or manage the land and can still sell it or pass it on to heirs.

Future owners are bounded by the easement terms, and the land trusts are responsible for making sure the easements stay in place.

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