Friday, April 6, 2007

Should county propose bond for open space?

Question is a matter of timing, officials say

Express Staff Writer

Viewed from the air, Blaine County and the Wood River Valley are a mix of developed and undeveloped private land and vast tracts of public land, as shown here in this view looking west over Sun Valley, Ketchum and 9,151-foot Bald Mountain. Blaine County voters may soon be asked to vote on an open space bond to help preserve select parcels of undeveloped private land throughout the county. Photo by Mountain Express

Would Blaine County voters be willing to open their wallets a little wider to help pay for the preservation of undeveloped private lands in select spots throughout the county through the purchase of open space easements?

In a nutshell, that's a question Blaine County officials are in the early stages of attempting to answer.

At a County Commission meeting Tuesday, Josh Alpert, a program manager with the Trust for Public Land in Portland, Ore., addressed the issue of whether the time is right for a Blaine County open space bond.

Alpert was invited to speak before county leaders by Commissioner Sarah Michael.

The first step in the process will be to complete an open space bond feasibility study, which would include a voter poll, Alpert said. The cost of the poll would be about $20,000.

"We would need to have a discussion about how to fund the poll," Alpert told the commissioners.

Nationally, support for local open space bonds has been high during recent election cycles, even in areas considered to be fiscally conservative, he said.

However, this wouldn't be the first time Blaine County voters have been asked to consider an open space bond. Voters were asked in May 1999 to consider a $6.5 million open space bond request. Approximately 50 percent of Blaine County voters checked yes on their ballots, falling short of the necessary two-thirds majority needed to pass an open space bond in Idaho.

Polling after the failed 1999 open space bond linked the lack of areas specified for preservation to the failure of the measure, Commissioner Larry Schoen said during Tuesday's meeting. Schoen is a farmer in the Bellevue Triangle area and has long been a supporter of efforts to preserve open space.

Giving voters a better idea of what their tax dollars are being used to preserve may give a future open space bond a better chance of succeeding, Schoen said.

Perhaps the biggest question mark is whether county property owners would agree to vote for such a measure given the dramatic increase in assessed property values witnessed during the past few years.

Many county property owners are still in shell shock over the dramatic increase, Michael said in an interview Wednesday. Any decision on whether to put an open space bond to a vote will have to consider those concerns, Michael said.

"There's some sensitivity to that," she said.

In general, open space bonds allow local governments to buy open-space easements from landowners in exchange for the landowner permanently giving up the development rights to their property. The easements can be used to protect agricultural resources, wildlife habitat, recreational and public access and areas of scenic value.

In the case of the failed $6.5 million open space bond in 1999, the 10-year bond would have increased property taxes by approximately $12 per $100,000 of assessed property value, the Blaine County Assessor's Office reported at the time.

Still, open space bonds cannot alone solve all of a local government's desire to preserve open space, Michael said.

Other tools include zoning and transfer-of-development-rights (TDR) programs, she said.

"You need to have a whole quiver of arrows," Michael said.

Deciding which lands should be prioritized for protection would require the input of the entire county, Michael said.

"It would be a community decision," she said.

While saying the county needs to develop a new funding source for private lands conservation, Kate Giese, the director of conservation for the Hailey-based Wood River Land Trust, advised the County Commission to proceed with caution.

An open space bond would have to be timed correctly if it were to succeed, Giese said. "I don't know if we think this is exactly the right time."

Still, Giese expressed interest in taking part in talks about a possible open space bond and noted that staff with the Idaho chapter of The Nature Conservancy have also expressed interest.

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