County officials trying to plan ahead for the multimillion dollar investment of taxpayer money in open space protection
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — Some local open space parcels may deserve an extra layer of protection through re-zoning, restrictive covenants, or even with formal conservation easements, county commissioners said earlier this week during a recent work session.
The informal work session talks were aimed at figuring out a way to give permanent protection for valuable open space parcels that might lend themselves to development. For now, the talks are preliminary, but the concept could gain more traction next week when the commissioners meet with the county’s open space advisory council.
“It’s a concept we’ve discussed in the past,” said Scott Hummer, chair of the open space council, adding that the question of permanent protection has been an ongoing theme for the citizens advisory group.
There’s no immediate threat to any of the county’s 170 open space properties, purchased with a dedicated stream of sales tax revenue approved by Summit County voters in 1993, 1999 and 2003. About 13,500 acres of land has been protected through land acquisitions, conservation easement donations, access easements, and partnerships with other agencies.
Many parcels in the Upper Blue were bought in partnership with Breckenridge. There is low-level concern that a future set of county commissioners could try to convert open space parcels to some other land use that wouldn’t meet the intent of the voters who approved the open space tax.
Many of the properties are backcountry inholdings surrounded by National Forest lands. Open space and trails department director Brian Lorch said he thinks the vast majority of those parcels could eventually be turned over to the Forest Service in land trades.
Not knowing what land-use needs might be in a 100 years adds a level of complexity to the talks. County attorney Jeff Huntley said that conservation easements could be term-limited, giving future elected officials a chance to review the status of the properties. Most conservation easements on private land are granted in perpetuity because of the associated tax implications.
County officials said it could cost as much as $10,000 to place a parcel under a conservation easement, but that would include monitoring to ensure that the open space values are maintained.
About a year ago, the county commissioners asked the open space commission to review all the open space parcels and develop a list of properties that might deserve more protection. The group came up with at least 12 properties, including the Fishhook parcel near Summit Cove, and the Blue Danube property near Summit High. The list was compiled based on whether there is a potential development threat and on the core open space values of the properties.
“I think there are some poster-child properties like Fishhook that would benefit the people of county by encumbering them (with additional protection),” said commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier.
“There are certain properties out there that matter a whole bunch … We said to the OSAC, we’d like your thoughts on this — we didn’t say we’re going to do conservation easements and pick out the properties,” said commissioner Thomas Davidson, who has previously said that the county needs to consider every option in its quest for affordable housing.