Friday, November 22, 2013

County denies funding for easement

Application was to protect open space at valley gateway

Express Staff Writer

Sheep graze on the Flat Top Ranch near Carey, where Land, Water and Wildlife Levy funds are serving to protect some of the open space. Express file photo

    By a vote of 2 to 1, Blaine County commissioners on Tuesday rejected an application for $192,000 from the county’s Land, Water and Wildlife Fund to preserve as open space an 80-acre ranch near Timmerman Junction, at the gateway to the Wood River Valley. Rejection had been recommended by the Levy Advisory Board on the grounds that too little land was being preserved for the price, as well as uncertainty about the value of the transfer-of-development rights being offered as the applicants’ matching funds.
    In 2008, Blaine County voters passed a $3.4 million, two-year levy to help protect clean water, wildlife habitat and working farms and ranches in Blaine County. Money is granted from the levy funds based on applications from landowners in partnership with nonprofit conservation organizations.
    Clare Swanger, project coordinator for the Land, Water and Wildlife Levy program, told the commissioners during their meeting at the Old Blaine County Courthouse that $2.4 million remains in the program, which has funded part of two conservation easements to date—one at the Flat Top Ranch near Carey and the other at the B Bar B Ranch near Picabo.
    The recent application was made jointly by the Wood River Land Trust and John and Kristy Molyneux, owners of the Weston Ranch just off of U.S. Highway 20 a half a mile west of the junction with state Highway 75. The money would have paid for all of a conservation easement on the 80-acre property.
    Swanger said the easements at the Flat Top and B Bar B ranches were bought for an average price of $192 per acre, while the current application would cost $2,400 per acre. She acknowledged that land values are much higher on the Weston Ranch property, but said the application was competing for limited funds with conservation goals elsewhere.
    “The Land Advisory Board feels that the Western Ranch is not accomplishing nearly as much conservation as other completed projects and other opportunities,” she said.
    The Land, Water and Wildlife Levy program was created with the intention that in most cases the application include a matching amount from the organization partner. In this case, the Wood River Land Trust was offering to give the county four transfer-of-development rights that it holds on its nearby Church Farms property. Ceding those rights to the county would have removed them from development use at the property.
    “The issue with the TDRs today is that there has not been a market established,” Swanger said. “We don’t have any way of knowing what that value is.”
    Commissioner Larry Schoen, who cast the dissenting vote, contended that the value of the TDRs to the county is not their market value, but their conservation value. He argued that the Land, Water and Wildlife Levy program was established to protect precisely the kind of working agricultural property that the Weston Ranch is.
    Wood River Land Trust Executive Director Scott Boettger called the application a “quintessential gateway project.”
    “Many of us have experienced the joy of returning home, crossing Timmerman Hill and looking across the valley,” he said.
    Commissioner Jacob Greenberg said rejection of the application would not prohibit the applicants from including a conservation easement on the property in a future, more wide-ranging project.

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