Friday, July 18, 2008

Open space levy to go before county next week

If approved, voters will decide on levy in November elections

Express Staff Writer

Linn Kincannon

Area conservation groups are hoping Blaine County property owners will agree to be charged an extra $50 per year, for two years, to help pay for conservation efforts in the county.

A coalition of the groups has banded together to support a two-year levy that could, they say, raise $3.5 million. If approved, the property tax override would mean an average two-year increase in the amount of property taxes paid by county homeowners to $50, based on the county's median home value of $436,000.

Supporters of the plan will approach the Blaine County Commission next Tuesday, to ask them to put the levy on the November general election ballot. The levy would only need a simple majority of voter approval to pass.

"We think now is the time," said Linn Kincannon, Central Idaho Director for the Idaho Conservation League, one of several groups promoting the new levy. The other groups are the Wood River Land Trust, The Nature Conservancy and Citizens for Smart Growth.

"It's not just one organization," said Scott Boettger, director of the Wood River Land Trust. "It's all these groups coming together."

The new coalition has been beating the bushes around the Wood River Valley for months, meeting with elected officials and groups like the Sawtooth Board of Realtors. They're planning a public information campaign that would likely cost about $150,000 to garner public support for the levy, if the commissioners agree to put the matter on the ballot.

The groups take a measure of confidence from a poll conducted by Moore Information, a Portland, Ore.-based research and polling company. In the January poll, that group found that of 400 Blaine County residents, some 63 percent were willing to pay $40 per year to help conserve habitat and open space.

Another poll, conducted this month, had a similar outcome, according to Trish Klahr, The Nature Conservancy's watershed manager for the Silver Creek Preserve.

In the earlier January survey, Moore Information pollsters also asked respondents what types of projects the public funding measure might be best used to pay for. Among the 10 possible projects highlighted in the survey, respondents said they favored protecting water quality in the Big Wood River, wildlife habitat, lands in the Little Wood River watershed, the Big Wood floodplain and scenic views, in descending levels of importance.

The January poll also asked the public their view of the county's transfer of development rights (TDR) program. In all, 64 percent of respondents said they have a favorable view of the TDR program, which allows landowners in specified areas of the county to sell their right to develop their land to landowners in other areas that the county has identified as being appropriate for denser subdivision development.

The coalition decided to conduct the second poll due to the downturn in the national economy, said Kate Giese, the Wood River Land Trust's director of conservation.

"We thought it would be prudent to do a follow-up poll," she said.

That poll also indicates strong support for public funding of local, open space preservation efforts, despite the tight economic times.

Money raised by the levy would be used to help put together conservation agreements with private landowners, to help preserve river access or sensitive wildlife habitat.

The group doesn't have any specific plots in mind, but Vanessa Crossgrove-Fry from the Citizens for Smart Growth said the group is looking at the Big Wood River corridor, the Bellevue Triangle area and the Little Wood River watershed north of Carey, based on the results of the survey.

"Those are the critical areas," she said. "That's where we can get ahead of the curve."

While county voters have previously rejected different open space funding measures, supporters of the new plan are confident they've put together a winning strategy voters will like.

Voters were asked in May 1999 to consider a $6.5 million open space bond, which would have been paid back over time by county taxpayer dollars. Approximately 50 percent of county voters checked yes on their ballots, falling short of the necessary two-thirds majority needed to pass an open space bond in Idaho.

Nationally, support for local open space bonds has been high during recent election cycles, even in areas considered to be fiscally conservative, Josh Alpert, a program manager with the Trust for Public Land in Portland, Ore., told county commissioners last year.

The proposed Blaine County open space levy is modeled after a similar two-year levy Boise voters approved in 2001. The levy raised $10 million for conservation efforts in the nearby Boise Foothills.

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