With more money now in the bank, Pitkin County Open Space and Trails hopes to protect and preserve more land from future real estate development.
Last year, the Pitkin Board of County Commissioners pulled the trigger on a $20 million bond for future open space acquisitions and ended up netting $24.5 million after all was said and done.
“We got a premium of $4.5 million because our credit was so good in Pitkin County,” Gary Tennenbaum, Pitkin County Open Space and Trails director, said in an interview Monday. “That’s where we got a big bump in revenue from last year and so we’re carrying that forward.”
Voters actually approved the multi-million bonding allowance for open space and trails in 2006, but officials did not utilize those dollars until recently. The move to do so was in response to historically low interest rates coupled with the local real estate boom amid the pandemic and the increased threat of development.
“The bond did give us a bigger balance. Now, we have some real firepower to [have] some major negotiations and major acquisitions. Where, without that bond, we’d be a lot less,” Tennenbaum said. “That’s what the voters want us to do, they want us to go buy open space and go build trails and maintain it all. So, that’s what we’re doing.”
Voters first approved a property tax to fund the county’s open space and trails program in 1990 and then reauthorized the tax in 2016. The ballot issue was reauthorized after receiving more than 70% of the vote.
Since its inception, the county’s open space and trails program has successfully preserved more than 22,000 acres of land through property purchases and conservation easements. The county has bought more than 5,000 acres of land and successfully negotiated conservation easements on an additional 17,000 acres thanks to open space and trails funds. The program also manages 84 miles of trail throughout Pitkin County.
“The voters put us into play because they wanted money to go buy open space,” Tennenbaum said. “Some years, we’ll spend a ton and then there are some years where we won’t spend much at all … it just goes on when you make the deal.”
Last year, Pitkin County finalized a $10 million conservation easement with Sunfire Ranch in order to protect the 1,240-acre property in the Crystal River Valley from future residential development.
“To make a large acquisition in Pitkin County … takes a lot of money,” Tennenbaum said.
This year, the county also leased land it purchased as open space, like the Glassier property, for future agricultural uses. The Glassier leasing process specifically came under scrutiny after some local farmers felt the decision was subject to favoritism — an accusation county officials strongly denied.
The Open Space and Trails program, in partnership with Aspen Valley Land Trust, hopes to hire a diversity coordinator next year. However, Tennenbaum said the decision to do so was not related to the Glassier dispute. The intent of the new position, he said, is to engage more Hispanic and Latino farmers in addition to younger generations of agriculturists.