Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Levy funds available

Landowners must partner with nonprofit groups


By KATHERINE WUTZ
Express Staff Writer

With the hiring of a coordinator for Land, Water and Wildlife Levy projects being imminent, landowners looking to benefit from the $3.25 million made available by the fund can start submitting pre-applications, the levy advisory board stated this week.

The only catch is that landowners cannot apply directly for funding for conservation projects, but must partner with a nonprofit organization or Blaine County.

The reason for this, board spokeswoman Mary Austin Crofts said, is that a private landowner cannot hold a conservation easement on his or her own property. Such easements are a requirement to get funding, as a guarantee that the land will be protected long-term.

Crofts said the third parties can also help put together the application, which is extensive and requires a certain level of technical expertise.

"It goes into great detail, and it requires additional research," she said. "It's just so important to be comprehensive."

Third parties will submit the pre-application to county Land Use and Building Services. Eligible nonprofits include the Wood River Land Trust, the Pioneer Alliance and The Nature Conservancy. Landowners who don't wish to work with a nonprofit may contact the Land Use and Building Services Department, which can help them develop applications for funding.

The Land, Water and Wildlife Levy was a two-year assessment on county property taxes to raise money to protect wildlife habitat and open space in Blaine County. No specific projects were proposed when the levy was approved by voters in November 2008.

Advisory board Chair Alan Reynolds said that while restoration projects such as rebuilding stream banks have their place and the board will consider such applications, the focus of successful applications will be on conservation.

Both Crofts and Reynolds said they weren't sure what sort of projects would gain approval, and they had no set number of projects or amount of funding they plan to approve for this round of applications.

"It's going to be interesting to see what shows up," Reynolds said.

Reynolds said the county has already received at least one pre-application, despite earlier statements that it would not accept them before hiring a project coordinator to oversee the process. Crofts said the project coordinator would need to have experience in managing conservation easements and working with similar applications.

"It takes expertise to get one of these projects to the finish line," Reynolds said. "It's a very technical deal."

He said the current county staff does not have expertise on that level, and Crofts said staff members do not have time to deal with the applications.

"They already have full-time jobs," Crofts said. "There are always going to be lots of questions, and we really need a point person to answer those questions."

The project coordinator position is estimated to involve 10 to 20 hours per week, depending on the time of year. More hours would be spent in January and June, when applications for funding will be due. The position will be funded out of the county's land-use budget rather than with levy funding.

Though no contract has been signed, Reynolds said the frontrunner for the position is a local person with extensive experience in land conservation, public policy and public outreach. He said that candidate has experience with several nonprofit land conservation groups, though none are from this area.

The county Land Use and Building Services department was not available for comment as to when the hiring would be confirmed. Reynolds said he hoped the new project coordinator could start as early as next week.

In the meantime, interested landowners can visit the levy advisory board's website, http://blainecountylab.wordpress.com, where all documents required for funding applications can be found.

Katherine Wutz: kwutz@mtexpress.com




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