New open space tax on the ballot


Since 1980, the Boulder Board of County Commissioners has had a wish list, a detailed and specific inventory of land parcels that would one day complete a rather ambitious open space plan.

Now, three decades later, the commissioners are seeing a light at the end of the tunnel. Having secured thousands of acres of land around the county, the commissioners are zeroing in on the last major purchase they will need to complete the 30-year-old open space plan. All that stands in their way are the voters.

“It’s really a matter of that last 10 to 15 percent,” says Ron Stewart, director of Boulder County Parks & Open Space. “It’s filling in the gaps in the land we’ve already purchased.”

County Issue 1B, approved by the county commissioners for inclusion on November’s ballot, asks voters to approve a new 0.15 percent sales and use tax for the next 20 years. The percentage would amount to one cent on a purchase of $10. In addition, 1B would allow for the issuance of bonds totaling $40 million, all for the purpose of purchasing open space.

Stewart says purchasing the 10,000 acres the county has its eye on would get it to within 5 percent of its open space goal. To date, the county has purchased or acquired conservation easements on 94,000 acres of land all over the county.

The timing of the ballot question is anything but arbitrary, according to Stewart. While most of the land surrounding these few remaining parcels has already come under the county’s control, the families who own them have been unwilling to sell — until now.

In most cases that land also represents the families’ major asset, according to Stewart. And with multiple heirs owning some portion of the properties, the decision to sell is a practical one.

“They don’t have the luxury of just sitting on it,” he says. “But there is a lot of preservation instinct in these people.”

Despite that instinct, Stewart says, a failure to pass 1B will likely mean those lands will never be available to the county again.

“When a family decides to sell their land, if we don’t have the funds to buy it, they’re going to sell it to someone who’s going to develop it,” Stewart says. “If we aren’t able to buy it, we’ll likely have lost the ability permanently to purchase it.”

County Commissioner Will Toor echoes Stewart’s warning.

“Around Heil and Hall, where you’ve got this beautiful land, imagine if there were development right there,” Toor says. “We probably have one opportunity to preserve this land, and that time is now.”

Toor also notes one very important component of acquiring open space land in the county: property values.

“The areas where there is open space, property values haven’t really taken a hit,” Toor says. “It’s a huge economic incentive.”

Not everyone is as supportive of the county open space program. Brian Schwartz of the Independence Institute, a conservative think tank in Golden, says private funding should be used for land preservation, not public funds.

“Why not find sponsors?” asks Schwartz. “There should be ways to finance these purchases without tax money.”

Schwartz also suggests using volunteers to maintain the trails and other public amenities offered by open space.

Despite the county’s success rate — nine successful ballot measures for open space funding — not all plans put before voters have passed. Just last fall, voters rejected a ballot question that would have extended an existing tax that was set to expire in 2019.

“I think the public was confused,” Stewart says. “The reasoning was, why would you extend something that doesn’t expire for 10 years?” In the end, both Toor and Stewart say the issue for voters will come down to the reasons they live in Boulder County in the first place.

“I think it’s part of the character of the county,” Toor says. “It’s had a remarkable impact on the quality of life and the economy.”