Routt voters will be asked to reauthorize conservation program in November

Polling from May showed 61% of residents surveyed would support reauthorization

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

Routt County voters will be asked to reauthorize a decades old conservation program for the third time in November, this time extending it for 10 more years.

The Board of County Commissioners voted unanimously on Tuesday, Aug. 30, to refer the question to voters, saying they were confident the community would once again approve the tax, which funds the county’s Purchase for Development Rights program.

“Every time I spend a little bit of time driving around the state, I am reminded of why this program is so important,” said Commissioner Tim Corrigan, referencing Chaffee and other counties where open space has been subdivided into smaller lots.

“(Other counties) are in a tough spot because they are trying to deal with this after the horse is out of the barn,” he continued. “We are in a position to maintain what we’re doing.”

The program started in 1996 and collects a 1.5 mill levy to purchase conservation easements that prohibit development on the land, which is often agricultural open space.

The idea is that instead of cash-poor and land-rich ranchers selling off land that is then subdivided into 35-acre parcels, they can sell development rights and maintain the open space. Since 1996, about $30 million has been used to protect more than 57,000 acres in Routt County.

Polling conducted in May in partnership with the nonprofit Trust for Public Lands bolstered commissioners confidence in the program being reauthorized. Out of 300 people surveyed, 61% said they would “definitely,” or “most likely” vote yes on the measure.

Routt County’s Purchase of Development Rights Program has protected land across the county. PDR purchases are in pink. Other conservation easements in Routt County are displayed as well.
Routt County/Courtesy image

But as commissioners have been meeting with members of the citizen board that recommends projects for funding, each have said they feel the program needs to be adjusted.

While these easements protect the land from development, most don’t open it up for any public use. One recent project did though, with an easement in South Routt County along the Yampa River above Stagecoach Reservoir partnering with Colorado Parks and Wildlife to offer anglers access to the river.

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One change that has been discussed would be giving proposed easements that include some form of public access more weight than those that don’t.

But because this question is being asked as a reauthorization — allowing the ballot language to include the phrase “without raising taxes” — the core component of buying conservations easements cannot change.

Commissioners have discussed the idea of asking an entirely new question that would broaden what the money could be used for, but after talking with PDR board members they felt the program could be adjusted without rephrasing the question.

Commissioner Beth Melton said she has worked with PDR Board Chair Clair Sollars to set up a joint meeting to discuss what changes to the program are needed and how to get the community involved in that conversation. That meeting wouldn’t be until after the Nov. 6 election, and would only be needed if the tax passed.

Unlike the last reauthorization in 2005, this extension is only for 10 years, meaning it would expire in 2035. Corrigan said he wanted a shorter window so commissioners can more frequently assess if the program is still working.

“I don’t think we’re out on too big of a limb here,” Corrigan said, referring to confidence that it would pass. “The voters get to decide.”

The ballot language asks: “Without increasing taxes, shall Routt County be authorized to extend the existing mill levy of one and a half mills commencing with the tax year 2025 and through tax year 2035, with the proceeds to continue to be used solely for the preservation and conservation of natural lands, including lands that preserve water quality, wildlife habitat, working ranches and scenic landscapes and vistas; with all expenditures based on recommendations of an advisory committee and subject to independent audit; and to be administered in accordance with the program commenced in 1996 by Routt County resolutions 96-059 and 96-063; and, continuing these funds including earning therefrom as a voter-approved revenue change without regard to any spending, revenue, or other limitation contained within Article X, Section 20 of the Colorado Constitution or any other law?”

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