Friday, April 27, 2007

Commissioners proceed cautiously on open space issue

Blaine County considers options for preserving undeveloped private lands

Express Staff Writer

Nearly everyone agrees that undeveloped open space is a valuable commodity worth preserving in Blaine County.

How to go about that achieving preservation is where disagreement exists.

At a meeting of the Blaine County Commission on Tuesday, April 17, commissioners discussed a draft letter of intent to be submitted to the Trust for Public Lands, a national nonprofit land conservation organization.

If approved by the commission, the letter would authorize the organization to proceed with a county-wide feasibility study to consider various funding methods for protecting open space.

One option the study would likely consider is whether or not to put an open space bond request to a vote of county residents.

In 1999, a $6.5 million open space bond request failed to gain the necessary two-thirds majority required to pass in Idaho. The 10-year bond would have increased property taxes by about $12 per $100,000 of assessed property value, the Blaine County Assessor's Office reported.

The study would help determine what the difference between 1999 and present is, if in fact a difference exists.

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

Commissioner Sarah Michael spearheaded the recent discussion.

However modest the topic may seem, Tuesday's discussion was not without controversy.

Although supportive of the idea, Commissioner Larry Schoen also expressed concern.

The letter shouldn't obligate the county to proceed in any one way, including the possibility of an open space bond, Schoen said.

Commissioner Tom Bowman also questioned whether the feasibility study should proceed without a county policy on possible funding mechanisms in place.

"It seems to be taking on a life of its own," Bowman said. "We're putting the cart before the horse."

Michael asked Schoen and Wood River Land Trust Executive Director Scott Boettger to work together to improve the document.

Kate Giese, the Land Trust's director of conservation, and Trish Claire, with The Nature Conservancy-Idaho, joined Boettger at Tuesday's meeting.

Addressing the commissioners, Claire said The Nature Conservancy supports the proposal to have the Trust for Public Lands conduct the feasibility study.

"We think it's the logical next step," Claire said. "It's just doing a little homework."

Having an additional source of funding would help, "would give us another tool in the quiver," she said.

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