Taxpayer-funded PDR program has shielded 6,400 acres from development since 2020
Program to purchase conservation easements may come before Routt County voters for reauthorization in November
Routt County’s Purchase of Development Rights Board has used just over $2 million in taxpayer dollars to set up conservation easements on more than 6,400 acres of land since 2020.
One of these easements, the SKCK Ranch along the Yampa River in South Routt, could be a model for how the program evolves as it nears the end of its 20-year window approved by voters in 2005. That project includes a fishing easement with Colorado Parks and Wildlife to provide access on a 2-mile stretch of the Yampa River.
“One of the things that stands out quite a bit in our efforts, combined with a number of other people who have entered into conservation easements, is the wildlife corridors that we are able to protect and maintain,” said Claire Sollars, chair of the PDR Board who has been involved with the program since it started.
The PDR program started in 1996 when voters initially approved collecting taxes to help conserve open space in the county. Now, funded by the 1.5 mill levy passed in 2005, the program has used nearly $30 million to get conservation easements on more than 57,000 acres in Routt County.
The easements, on average, include a 50% contribution from the landowner with other funds coming from the PDR board and other partner organizations like the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust and the Nature Conservancy, among others. The idea is that instead of selling off parcels that could be subdivided into 35-acre lots, the PDR program offers an alternative that keeps the open space in tact.
“At 35 acres for unregulated subdivisions, that (57,000 acres) would represent 1,628 35-acre parcels that cannot be built on,” said Commissioner Tim Corrigan. “It’s certainly in the interest of our road and bridge department not to have 1,628 houses out there.”
These easements are then managed by those partner organizations that then report back to county commissioners to ensure that the agreement is followed.
Megan Knott, Director of Stewardship for the Cattleman’s Land Trust, said one thing throwing a wildcard into conservation easements is the local real estate market.
While the easement is meant to devalue the land by removing development rights, many ranches with easements sold recently at prices higher than expected. Knott said six properties the group manages that were funded with PDR dollars changed hands in 2021.
“We’re having to build new relationships with land owners,” Knott said. “They don’t necessarily understand conservation easements and it wasn’t their intent to put it on the property, they bought it with (a conservation easement) in place.”
Still, even if a property is sold it is near impossible to remove a conservation easement, though it has happened. Generally a municipality would need to condemn land for that to happen.
“We’re seeing that some conserved properties are selling for more than we expected,” Sollars said. “What we’re getting is a number of, shall we say, well to do people moving into our area that enjoy the opportunities of a landscape that is already preserved.”
The easement is meant to represent the cost of giving up development rights. This means if the easement has less of an impact on overall value, the easement itself isn’t as much of a payoff for the landowner. Corrigan noted this could be a concern for the program going forward.
The mill levy is set to expire in 2025, and Sollars said the board has begun an effort to poll the community about the willingness to renew the program. This effort will also seek to understand what people want the program to accomplish, should it continue beyond its current funding window.
“There’s a lot we can do under our current program as far as different things that are within our program,” Sollars said. “Regardless of where we go on reauthorization of the new program, it’s still important to review and update our criteria anyway.”
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.
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