Teller County puts TOPS to the voters 

Ballot issue blends two conservation strategies

In an effort to preserve open ranchland up in the high plains and steep slopes west of Ute Pass, Teller County voters will get a chance this November to take a new approach to saving open space while keeping property in private hands.

The effort is the latest hybrid of two increasingly common land preservation tools in Colorado: voter-approved taxes for land preservation and conservation easements, in which landowners sell the right to subdivide some or all of their properties.

The Teller County open-space initiative draws on the 1997 success of the Colorado Springs Trails and Open Space, or TOPS, initiative, which levied a one-tenth of 1-percent sales tax in order to fund the purchase of open space within city limits.

Highest and best use

But instead of buying land, the Teller County measure would allow the county to buy development rights from the owners of existing ranches through the use of conservation easements.

The easements preclude landowners, or their heirs, from subdividing the land. In exchange, ranchers get paid for the value of those development rights -- the difference between the value of the land developed, and its value as agricultural or open-ranch land.

To members of Teller County's Rural Lifestyle Protection Group, which is sponsoring the ballot issue, the beauty of this approach is that it allows private landowners and families to stay on the land over generations.

Very often, the heirs to large ranches must sell or subdivide their family farms of ranches because they get hit by whopping estate taxes, which are pegged to the land's "highest and best use" as real estate. Conservation easements help keep the tax evaluation pegged to agricultural use.

And because it involves less government control over land, conservation easements are more politically acceptable than big-government land buys in conservative, rural ranching communities.

"Not only is it expensive for government to buy land, but they then have a hard time paying for the stewardship of the land," said Jane Lass, a supporter of the ballot issue who has owned a 50-acre, Teller County ranch with her husband, Dick, for 20 years.

Staying on the land

"So we feel it's better to keep the families on the property," added Lass, who leases roughly 6,000 acres from other landowners to graze cattle. "These families are sometimes two or three generations on the land and they do what it takes to keep the land up. We'd also like to see these families stay in the area."

The open-space tax would place a .772 mil levy on all property owners in the county, meaning that the owner of a $150,000 home would pay roughly $10 a year in extra taxes.

If approved, the levy is expected to raise roughly $200,000 a year, which the county would use as seed money to obtain larger grants from preservation organizations such as the state-funded Greater Outdoors Colorado, or GOCO. If approved, the levy will be in place for only 10 years, after which it could once again be put to voters for approval.

Roughly 20 percent of the funds would be used for building infrastructure on trails and parks, as well as open-space protection in Cripple Creek, Victor and Woodland Park.

The Teller County approach is not entirely novel, however, for rural Colorado. In fact, the Teller County effort is modeled closely after a similar initiative that passed in 1996 in Routt County, about 150 miles northwest of Denver. A similar ballot initiative is also being put to voters in Grand County, also northwest of Denver, this November.

Might be close

Exactly what chances the referendum has for passage of the Teller County proposal is unclear because, to date, there has been no visible organized opposition to the proposal.

"I really do not have a feel for what the silent majority out there thinks," said Scott Flora, the assistant director of the Trails and Open Space Coalition for the Pikes Peak region, which supports the ballot issue. "We've had support from the Courier, the county newspaper, and support from public officials."

When the county voter's guide was prepared, he added, no one submitted any negative comments about the proposal. "So everything in the TABOR book is favorable toward [the ballot measure], but whether the silent majority will come in and just vote against taxes is hard to say," he added.

Flora noted that open-space taxes are rarely successful the first time around. "Most of these land initiatives lose the first time," he said. "In Colorado Springs, TOPS failed the first time around. Often, it takes that extra level of awareness among people who didn't get out to vote the first time, but now know about [the proposal]."

In the past, however, any group hoping to increase the mil levy has faced an uphill battle. "Historically, it's been difficult to pass a tax increase in Teller County and we do know that in Steamboat Springs, in Routt County, it was close," Lass said.

But she noted that, at least for those involved in the ranching and open-space communities, the notion of easements is nothing new. Several of the area's larger ranching families are already working with private nonprofit foundations on the sale or donation of conservation easements.

Lass conceded that the proposed tax increase could put pressure on some who've lived in the county for a long time, but who now live on fixed incomes. But she said that "the people who've lived here a long time remember what it was like" before development began to impinge on the rural lifestyle.

"The majority of people moved here for the rural lifestyle, the beauty of seeing hay in production and to see this open ranch land," she said. "We think [it's] not a real big increase for people who want to see that preserved."


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