Land trusts struggle to preserve open space in tough economic times

Land trusts around the state are being squeezed by the recession, bad publicity from over-valued parcels and the perception that conservation easements are scams where landowners use public funds to keep their properties while denying public access to the land.

The Fort Collins Coloradoan Sunday reported on the plight of the state’s more than 30 nonprofit land trusts, which through conservation easements have kept hundreds of thousands of acres of private land around the state from being developed.

But at a time when development pressure has decreased because of the flagging economy and depressed real estate market, contributors have also shut off the tap of private money needed to purchase big chunks of desirable open land in both suburban and rural areas.

The State Legislature next session may look at slashing the conservation easement tax credit as it tries to cope with an ever-expanding budget crisis. In Fort Collins the Legacy Land Trust has preserved nearly 40,000 acres.

“The state tax credit is a very unique and valuable program,” Margie Latta of the Mesa Land Trust told the Coloradoan. Her trust has reportedly protected nearly 54,000 acres in Mesa County. “Without that program, we may very well lose our ability to work with landowners that have extremely critical land here in Colorado.”

In the high country, where land values tend to outstrip values in the rest of the state but parcels are perceived as even more worth sparing from development, the Eagle Valley Land Trust has protected nearly 10,000 acres of land with easements on 18 properties, including working ranches, scenic view corridors, riparian areas and wildlife habitat.

The EVLT taps into a dedicated open space tax but virtually every project it proposes to Eagle County’s Open Space Advisory Committee is met with stiff resistance. Its latest proposal to preserve a working ranch along the Colorado River was nearly turned back by the county when some officials felt the 1,000-acre spread was overvalued at $13 million.

The county ultimately committed $3 million, instead of the requested $4.7 million, putting the deal in question, but there is now talk of radically revamping how the open-space process works and possibly even a citizen petition to put the open space tax back on the ballot to change its parameters or repeal it altogether.

When former Eagle County Commissioner Bud Gates brokered a conservation easement on his ranch, critics charged the land is too far from major population centers and not a good deal for taxpayers because of a lack of public access. Allowing public access on a working ranch, of course, can be problematic.

A 70-acre parcel in downtown Edwards has been preserved as a public park along the Eagle River, but many balked at the $12 million price tag, half of which came from public funds. And now that developers across the high country are running into credit problems and a cratering high-end real estate market, former Eagle County Commissioner Arn Menconi says the county should be much more selective.

For instance, more than 5,000 acres of private land off the back side of Vail Mountain, known as the Battle Mountain parcel, were in the preservation crosshairs of the Eagle Valley Land Trust back in the 1990s, but development pressure was so intense back then that the owners sued their partner, Vail Resorts, when conservation was even suggested.

That land wound up in the hands of Florida golf-resort developer Bobby Ginn for nearly $33 million, and the big-time GOP contributor embarked on plans for a private ski and golf resort just across the Eagle River Valley from the Holy Cross Wilderness Area.

Now Ginn’s golf holdings are in serious trouble, with several resorts filing for bankruptcy, and the future of the Battle Mountain parcel is back up in the air. Meanwhile, no less of an investigative journalism source than the Golf Channel on Tuesday will air a special on Ginn’s woes and its ripples effects throughout the golf world.

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About the Author

David O. Williams

is an award-winning reporter who has covered energy, environmental and political issues for years. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Denver Post. He's founder of Real Vail
and Real Aspen.

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