A coalition of Garfield County residents wants to create an open space program funded by a new countywide sales tax.
The group, the Garfield Legacy Project, is aiming to place the new tax on the November ballot.
Formed in 2009 with funding from a state conservation grant, they have been gauging support for the idea and attempting to spread the word about potential benefits of an open space program.
“Our hope is to get the program put together, get it voted on, and get it passed in November,” said Mary Noone, co-chair of the Legacy Project.
They are eying an additional quarter-penny sales tax, which they estimate would produce $2.5 million in annual revenue. A sales tax may be more popular with voters than a property tax, Noone said, citing statistics that show non-Garfield County residents pay a majority of the county sales tax when they visit or are passing through.
The county commissioners would have to clear the question to go on the ballot. The Legacy Project is now polling residents on their support of the idea. They’re hoping poll results will be strong enough to sway the commissioners to put a tax question to voters.
Commissioners have expressed interest in seeing polling data on the sales tax. Noone said they plan to present results from the poll to the board this summer.
Commissioner Tom Jankovsky said he would support putting the item on the ballot if the polls showed support above “60 to 65 percent.” But the commissioner was unsure whether he would vote for any new taxes this fall.
“It’s a real tough time to get any kind of tax approved,” he said. “I don’t know if I’m a supporter or not, but I would be open to putting it on the ballot.”
Jankovsky also noted that Garfield County voters have twice rejected an open space tax. The last time it was on the ballot was 2001, with an initiative that would have created a special taxing district.
“This is a very conservative county,” he said.
Legacy Project leaders conducted a previous poll in 2010, which showed lukewarm support for the idea. They backed off of the ballot campaign then, and decided to focus on raising public awareness of conservation issues in the 3,000-square-mile county.
Noone said they wanted to wait until the local economy improved, along with sentiment for new taxes.
“We’ve turned a big corner, I feel,” Noone said of local consumer confidence.
They’ve been focusing their open space outreach on issues of water quality, ranching, wildlife, habitat protection and increasing outdoor recreation opportunities.
Recent outreach efforts have included meetings with recreation groups, including ATV riders.
It’s a less tax-friendly constituency than the upper Roaring Fork Valley, where Pitkin County voters have overwhelmingly supported an open space property tax since 1990. It has given the county a veritable war chest of conservation funds to often buy properties outright. The property tax is expected to generate about $10.4 million this year.
“Garfield County is very different from Pitkin County,” Noone said. “A property tax would not work down here.”
The Legacy Project leaders want to establish an open space board, to be appointed by the county commissioners and made up of Garfield County residents, to oversee the funds. The voluntary program would invite interested landowners to present potential conservation easements on their properties to the open space board.
Legacy Project leaders are modeling the idea after Routt County’s taxpayer-funded Purchase of Development Rights program, which is overseen by a citizen advisory board and has focused on protecting land through conservation easements. Since its founding in 1997, the program is estimated to have conserved more than 11,000 acres.
As the group is pitching it, the program would give owners of open land or working ranchers an option beyond selling to developers. Noone characterized it as a “completely voluntary open land program.”
“We want to give property owners more options on what to do with their land,” Noone said. “We hope they would want to put it in a conservation easement.”
The group plans to soon release maps that display land they hope to preserve which is under threat of development.
As examples, she said the tax-funded program might be able to provide easements to open up properties like the Sutey Ranch outside Carbondale. It could also protect ranchland from development, like the former ranch that is now the site of a Target store and parking lot in Glenwood.
Noone is a painter whose work has focused on local vistas for the last 30 years. She said that many of her paintings capture areas that have either been closed to public access — like Sutey — or built on, like Aspen Glen.
“I’m desperate not to lose more of these places and that’s how I got into this,” she explained.
The initiative has won the support of the Sonoran Institute and the Aspen Valley Land Trust (AVLT).
“We’re about to get to the point where we have maps that can identify priority areas,” said AVLT executive director Martha Cochran.
Twenty out of Colorado’s 64 counties have open space conservation programs, including Pitkin and Eagle counties.
In the fall, the Legacy Project hosted workshops that included presentations from Larimer, Eagle, Jefferson and Routt counties on their programs. They held open house-style meetings in Carbondale, Glenwood Springs, Parachute and Rifle.