Polling shows voters likely to reauthorize PDR program if asked

Started in 1996, the program may need adjustments as it continues

The Yampa River flows through Wolf Mountain Ranch just east of Hayden. The 487-acre ranch is under a conservation easement monitored by the Nature Conservancy and made possible by Routt County's Purchase of Development Rights program.
Nature Conservancy/Courtesy photo

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to say while there are conservation easements in the south valley, most are not PDR-funded easements.

Polling shows that if voters were asked to reauthorize Routt County’s taxpayer-funded Purchase for Development Rights program in November, it would likely pass.

The survey of 300 local, registered voters posed a very similar ballot question to what voters approved in 2005. About 61% of those asked told the pollster that they were either “definitely” or “most likely” to vote yes on the measure.

“I think these results are strong and speak for themselves,” said Routt County Commissioner Beth Melton on Tuesday, June 21. “Those are big numbers and it tells me that the community is interested in supporting the continuation of this program.”

For the reauthorization question to be posed to voters this fall, county commissioners need to refer it to the ballot by the end of July. Potential ballot language is still being finalized, but each commissioner indicated they favored asking voters this year while the polling was fresh.

The PDR program started in 1996 and has since shielded more than 57,000 acres of private land in Routt County from development by using about $30 million.

The program uses a 1.5 mill levy to purchase conservation easements that, on average, include a 50% contribution from the landowner. The idea is that instead of cash-poor and land-rich ranchers selling off parcels that could be subdivided into 35-acre lots, they can sell away the development rights and keep the open space in tact.

But the program is also hitting a point where both commissioners and the board of citizens that recommends projects to them feel it may need to be reevaluated.

“As a person who helped write the (program’s) criteria among others 20 some years ago, there were no models,” said C.J. Mucklow, a member of the program’s board and former regional director with Colorado State University Extension. “Now, we have models to go back to, so now I think it is time to look at it again, including things that are also a high priority.”

The polling was conducted by Colorado-based New Bridge Strategy from May 20 to 26 with the help of nonprofit, Trust for Public Lands. Interviews were conducted over the phone and the top line question has a margin of error of plus or minus 5.6%.

When asked their two main reasons for supporting the PDR program, 40% of voters said conservation, 13% said to control growth and development and 8% said maintain open space.

Supporting agriculture was the fourth most popular answer, with 5% of people picking it. This question was free response, so respondents could have given any answer.

Of those who said they would support the measure, 72% said conserving working ranches was either “extremely” or “very important”, compared to 89% saying conserving lands around rivers and streams to protect water quality.

Managing forests to reduce fire risk and manage recreation areas to minimize impacts to the land — two things the program is not currently outlined to address — both received higher marks than supporting ranches, at 86% and 73% of voters responding “extremely” or “very important”, respectively.

“Everyone on the board agrees it’s time to take a look at those criteria,” said Clair Sollars, chair of the program’s board.

Most of these easements do not include any public access to the land, but one recent project sponsored by Colorado Parks & Wildlife did. Sollars said the criteria the board uses to score easement applications could be updated to score projects that would provide public access or would be important for wildfire prevention higher than they are now.

Changes to the program are limited if the ballot language is to use the phrase “without raising taxes.” The Colorado Taxpayer’s Bill of Right, known as TABOR, limits changes when a question is being phrased as a reauthorization.

If the program were to change to do something other than purchase conservation easements as it does now, ballot language would need to essentially create a new program, and let the current one expire. Commissioner Tim Corrigan noted that the polling doesn’t reveal how voters would respond to a question like that.

The only difference in the polled question was a sunset provision. The current program sunsets after 20 years, in 2026. While commissioner Tim Corrigan said he saw value in a sunset clause, commissioner Tim Redmond said there are benefits to not having one. Corrigan said the sunset was something still “undecided.”

Either way, commissioners indicated that they want to review the program somewhat periodically, potentially every five or 10 years.

“We’re not referring this to the ballot today, so I think we can get language and have that discussion,” Melton said.

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