Officials consider ways to improve Routt County’s Purchase of Development Rights program
After Routt County voters overwhelmingly supported reauthorization of the county’s Purchase of Development Rights program last week, officials are discussing how the program can be adapted into the future.
Of the 13,250 votes cast, just 2,000 voters weren’t supportive of continuing the program that was first approved in 1996 and has shielded more than 57,000 acres from development since by purchasing conservation easements.
“That’s our biggest margin ever passing that tax, which is very exciting and I think indicative of the value of the program for our community,” said Routt County Commissioner Beth Melton.
In a work session with county commissioners on Monday, Nov. 14, commissioners and the citizen-led PDR board outlined a plan to hire a consultant to review the program and see what changes could be made within the bounds of what voters passed.
This may lead to reworking the criteria used to assess what easements the board moves forward with. Currently, much of these criteria largely consider the agricultural values of the land, but not other factors like potential public access.
Of the current criteria, two of the four categories focus on the agricultural use of land, its economic viability and how it could maintain that ranching heritage into the future. One category addresses impacts for wildlife, as well as scenic and historical values, and the fourth category largely takes into account the economics of purchasing the easement, such as how much value the landowner is willing to donate to make the deal.
But as commissioners and the PDR board weighed asking voters to reauthorize the program over the summer, some expressed a desire to revisit how the program is administered, potentially giving more consideration to how the easements could help with wildfire mitigation, better maintain wildlife corridors and potentially provide more access for the public.
The campaign message asking voters to support the measure also focused on the benefits of the program beyond agriculture, with the terms water and wildlife appearing ahead of “working ranches” in the campaign slogan.
“I think revisiting and thinking about what it is that people want this program to do … is a really valuable thing to do,” Melton said. “In the end, how you all evaluate the applications you receive and make recommendations, in my opinion, should be reflective of what the voters think they were approving when they voted yes on this tax.”
Commissioner Tim Corrigan, who was not at Monday’s meeting but had sent comments to share with the PDR board, stressed his desire to see more weight given to potential public access when considering easements.
One recent easement partnered with Colorado Parks and Wildlife to provide fishing access on the Yampa River, but most of the PDR-funded agreements don’t offer access for the public.
Dean Rossi, a member of the PDR board, predicted that policing new public access would be a “nightmare” and said that easements would likely cost a lot more if a rancher would allow public access.
Another issue Corrigan and Commissioner Tim Redmond see with the program is that these conservation easements are not devaluing the land to the degree they had in the past. Redmond said that someone with deep pockets may see a property as more valuable if there are easement-protected ranches on all sides.
“I don’t know how you deal with that, but I just think it’s something we need to think about,” Redmond said.
Corrigan’s comments also suggested the PDR board should be more proactive in purchasing conservation easements, potentially identifying key wildlife corridors and reaching out to landowners in those areas to educate them about the PDR program. Currently, the PDR board is more passive, waiting for landowners to submit an application to them.
Mary Alice Page-Allen, a member of the PDR board, said they need to consider where development is appropriate when considering future easements and potentially involve towns more in the process. She said she can think of one easement near Hayden that probably should not have been granted due to the area’s proximity to town.
Any changes need to be made within the context of the current ballot language, as the board opted to reauthorize the same language rather than ask voters a different question — a tactic that allowed the county to use the phrase “without raising taxes” in the ballot question.
Melton said she and PDR board chair Claire Sollars discussed hiring a consultant that could do public outreach and see what voters want the program to achieve in its next decade. This outreach could also identify what desires the community has for conservation that are not within the bounds of the PDR program.
“I think there’s an opportunity by the end of this process to identify, ‘Are there gaps in the conservation values that this community cares about that cannot be filled by the PDR program,’ and what does that mean?” Melton said.
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.
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