Reauthorizing Routt County’s purchase of development rights program may land on November ballot
The program’s citizen board started weighing options with commissioners on Monday, May 7.
Members of Routt County’s Purchase of Development Rights Citizens Advisory Board approached commissioners on Monday, March 7, to start talking about putting reauthorization of the program on the ballot in November.
The program was first approved by voters in 1996. The goal has been to purchase development rights from landowners to set up a conservation easement to protect open space and agricultural lands in Routt County from future development.
In 2005, voters approved an amendment to the PDR program, increasing the property tax authority to 1.5 mills and setting it to sunset in 2025 absent another approval from voters.
“We thought it would behoove us to put it on this year’s ballot, rather than waiting much longer,” said Claire Sollars, chair of the advisory board.
Sollars said in addition to simple reauthorization, members of the board wanted to explore other potential uses for this funding beyond purchasing development rights, such as wildfire mitigation, habitat restoration and recreation opportunities. They have also discussed increasing the mill levy to achieve some of these additional conservation goals that are currently not part of the program.
But, while commissioners said they felt the program has been successful, they cast doubts on whether a very different make up of Routt County voters would have the same view of it as their counterparts did in 2005. As for what additional things the program should do, commissioners largely said they didn’t know what the community would support.
“You’re going to need 8,000 to 9,000 people to vote for this, and I think that’s the real question,” said Commissioner Beth Melton. “What do the people of Routt County want to see out of this? And I don’t know the answer to this question.”
Melton said her gut said there isn’t enough support in the community for continuing the program as it has been suggested. Commissioner Tim Corrigan wasn’t confident about it passing either, saying “maybe, maybe not.”
“I am skeptical about doing this in 2022,” Corrigan said.
The program does not need to be decided on in November, and commissioners could opt to put it on the ballot in 2023, 2024 or 2025 instead. Still, PDR board member Tim Wohlgenant said going to voters now gives them another chance if it were to fail.
“The reason to go earlier is so in case it fails you get another bite at the apple,” Wohlgenant said.
Commissioners have until about the end of August to approve something to be added to November’s ballot. While he was skeptical, Corrigan said he would support the PDR board if they wanted it to be on this year’s ballot.
As written, the PDR funds can really only be used to purchase development rights or for other fees associated with conservation easements. Since it started, the program has put about 60,000 acres in the county into easement at a cost of about $30 million.
A survey of a small number of stakeholders showed an overwhelmingly desire to explore expanding uses of the money, but those surveyed disagree on what exactly that looks like. Protecting Routt County’s water resources and enhancing wildlife habitat were two leading options, but others also wanted to explore adding public access sites along the Yampa River and ways to mitigate outdoor recreation.
Still, the survey had only about 17 respondents and isn’t close to a scientific look at what the community wants.
Corrigan said it has sometimes frustrated him that PDR funds can’t be used to enhance recreational access.
Some easements have added to recreational opportunities, most recently with an easement along the Yampa River above Stagecoach Reservoir last year. But another partner, like Colorado Parks and Wildlife, not the PDR board, has funded the actual recreation aspect of those easements.
One option would be to hire a polling firm to ask voters what they would and wouldn’t approve as far as a mill levy and potential changes to the program.
“Let’s start with what is it that the voters of Routt County want this program to accomplish,” Melton said. “1996 is a long time ago. Is that still what we are wanting it to accomplish or is there something different?”
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.
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