For the week of May 19, 1999  thru May 25, 1999  

Misgivings about the open-space bond

In Blaine County, questioning the upcoming open-space bond is something like questioning the merits of motherhood and apple pie. What’s to question?

It would be good to preserve the fields of southern Blaine County. It would be good to save the surrounding environs from unrestrained growth and development that can result in unlivable communities.

That said, we’ve got a few misgivings about the $6.5 million open-space bond that goes to voters next Tuesday.

Voting in favor of the bond will require a leap of faith. It will stuff a piggy bank with $6.5 million to be spent by the Blaine County Commissioners to acquire open space--no strings attached,

The county has not approved any guidelines for deciding which open-space easements to buy.

It has not established a process through which people may offer to sell easements, nor a process through which members of the public may support or object to a purchase.

It has not identified any properties upon which it wishes to buy easements.

In other kinds of bond elections, people know what they are buying—specific land for schools, parks, parking lots etc. The Legislature left the details to the county on this one.

The county has addressed few of them.

All that exists are drafts of ideas and what are no doubt heartfelt promises from the Blaine County Commissioners that they will set up a process that is fair and open.

The bond has been rushed to the polls because it is the only hope the county has of ending the deadlock between south-county land owners who want to subdivide their farms and ranches and people who want to see the land remain open, Blaine County officials among them.

Blaine County can’t hold off the bulldozers much longer without committing itself to an expensive, and probably futile, legal battle.

Dist. 21 State Rep. Wendy Jaquet is right when she says that if people want to preserve the open fields in the south county—or anywhere else in the county—they are going to have to put their money where their mouth is.

Nonetheless, scant time has been allowed for evaluation and discussion of the bond. It raced from the Legislature’s green light to the polls in just two months.

Basic questions remain to be answered. Is $6.5 million too little or too much? What can it really buy?

What will the removal of developable property in the county do to the cost of living and the cost of doing business in an already high-priced area?

There’s also a problem with putting up the money up without guidelines in place. It surfaced at a meeting of the Blaine County Commissioners Monday: Not everyone has the same definition of open space.

Some people wanted to know if the county will allow ball fields to be developed on property with open-space easements. Are ball fields open space? How about the parking lots, back stops, bleachers and concessions that go along with them?

Would the development of recreation fields conflict with the apparent assumption behind the bond that purchasing open-space easements will keep farmers and ranchers in business?

There’s nothing to date that tells us that the county will or won’t allow ball fields to be developed on properties bearing open-space easements that have been bought and paid for with public money. There is also no guarantee that agricultural activities will continue on easement lands.

Another problem.

State law allows government bodies to negotiate land purchases in closed-door meetings. Agreements to purchase conservation-easements could easily occur in closed-door sessions and unwritten promises to the contrary could not stop them. Also, there are no written guarantees that open-space easements will be scrutinized in public hearings.

What are voters to do, especially with the bulldozers breathing down their necks?

Voters comfortable with leaps of faith and who trust the Blaine County Commissioners will spend the money properly should back the bond. Passage may assure that what open lands can be saved with $6.5 million will be saved.

Skeptical voters will send the county back to the drawing board and demand that it come back with a solid plan and firm guidelines for spending the money—before they write the check.

Tuesday will tell the tale.


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