GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado - Garfield County commissioners are prepared to let voters decide on a new open space sales tax question in the fall election.
At a work session with supporters Wednesday, the commissioners posed a range of questions about the details of the proposed Garfield County Open Lands Program, and the degree of county government-level involvement it would entail.
The citizen-led Garfield Legacy Project (GLP) is proposing a 10-year, 0.25 percent sales tax to fund a countywide agricultural land conservation and public open space program.
It is estimated that the sales tax would generate about $2 million annually to fund a program to purchase development rights from willing agricultural landowners.
Working with a land trust, conservation easements would be placed on the lands to maintain them as working farms or ranches. But the land would remain in private ownership.
Land conservation is strictly voluntary on the part of landowners, stressed Martha Cochran, executive director of the Aspen Valley Land Trust (AVLT), one of the partner groups in the Garfield County open space effort.
"We never contact people ourselves," Cochran explained of requests to conserve a particular piece of property under the county program. "They would always come to us."
A grant program within the open space fund could also be used to help local governments complete parks and trails projects within the county.
A county commissioner-appointed volunteer citizen review board would review and recommend conservation and grant proposals to the Board of County Commissioners.
The GLP has put about three years into developing the program. A recent poll conducted for the group showed 52 to 58 percent support for the measure among likely voters in the county.
A total of 77 percent of voters responding to the poll said they would like to see the question on the ballot.
Commissioners said they intend to formally refer the question to the Nov. 6 ballot. A resolution to that effect will be considered at either the Aug. 6 or Aug. 13 regular BOCC meeting.
Commissioner Tom Jankovsky did caution supporters that, although the poll results indicated a majority of support, there's still a lot of sentiment against any new taxes.
"You still aren't in that 60th percentile that I'd like to see," Jankovsky said. "I will agree to do this one more time. But, for me anyway, it's three strikes and you're out."
Two previous attempts at a property tax-funded open space program in the eastern part of Garfield County in the early 2000s were rejected by voters.
"I think you have to take a deep breath and look at the economy right now," Jankovsky added. "There are still a lot of people hurting out there, who are on unemployment and food stamps."
The proposed sales tax would not apply to food purchases.
Supporters estimate that the sales tax would cost the average household in the county about $39 per year, and that a large percentage of the tax would also be paid by visitors passing through the area.
"In my opinion it is very important to maintain some of the larger ranches in the county, not just for agricultural preservation, but for the elk and deer," said New Castle area rancher Scot Dodero, who supports the proposal.
Dodero's Dry Elk Ranch is in a conservation easement with the AVLT, and was referred to as an example of the kind of effort the county program could facilitate.
Jock Jacober, a partner in the Jacober family's Crystal River Meats in Carbondale, said the business is currently leasing about 1,500 acres of private grazing land for its cattle. All of that land is in conservation easements, he said.
"This is just one example of how it does work, and how we as a county can continue to use this tool," Jacober said. "Local food is becoming a serious business. It is a money-making, job-creating business, and I want to see it continue."
On the public open space front, another potential project that could be funded by the county program is the proposed Rifle River Park and Boat Ramp, said Rifle Parks and Recreation Director Aleks Briedis.
Briedis, who is also a candidate for county commissioner in the Nov. 6 election, has been actively involved with the GLP effort.
Rifle's new Centennial Park, which received some county funding support, is another example of a project that in the future could benefit from open space funding, rather than county general funds, Briedis said.
Larry Dragon, who is heading up the Lower Valley Trail (LOVA) project, said future sections of the paved bicycle path along the Colorado River could also possibly benefit from the county open space program.
County Commissioner John Martin pointed out that the county is not in a position to establish a parks and recreation department.
"Trails are an asset, but they're also a liability," Martin said. "It would be a change in policy if we opened that door and got into the parks and trails business."
Dragon said the paths provide an alternative means of transportation, in addition to being a recreation amenity.
"You are in the transportation business," Dragon said, pointing to the extensive county road system.