By Michael Howell
The County Commissioners last week chose not to place the Open Lands Bond program on the ballot again. The voters approved the $10 million bond for aiding in the preservation of open space in the valley by a 60% vote in 2006. To date, $2.5 million of those funds have been spent on establishing conservation easements on various properties in the valley. The commissioners are currently issuing the bonds to place another $2.5 million into the program coffers.
Commissioner Ron Stoltz had the topic placed on the agenda because he said he had run into quite a few people who felt that due to the change in the economy they could not afford to support it now and would not vote for it if it was on the ballot at this time. Stoltz said he thought it might be a good idea to put the program before the voters again and possibly discontinue it.
Gavin Ricklefs, Executive Director of the Bitterroot Land Trust, the non-profit company that helps landowners establish conservation easements on their property, has played a major role in helping willing landowners tap into Open Lands Bond program funds to help pay for placing easements on their property that will preserve open space in perpetuity by limiting development of the property.
“I think the Open Lands Bond program is doing what it was asked to do by the voters,” Ricklefs told the commissioners. He said the program was getting better, more effective and more efficient every year. He said the program had been specially tailored to local values and interest in the program was growing. In the first seven years the program has helped 14 different families preserve close to 4,200 acres from subdivision. Ricklefs said that the OLB funds going into the easements help leverage other funds as well adding about $2.1 million in additional funds so far.
“Because we’ve made the commitment locally,” he said, “others are recognizing it is a good place to put their dollars.”
Ricklefs noted that the current $2.5 million in bond funds costs the owner of a home valued at $100,000 $3.29 per year. The owner of a home with a $200,000 taxable value is paying $5.77 per year into the program.
“That’s a pretty small investment for the kind of return we are getting,” said Ricklefs. He noted that the program was supporting both agriculture, by keeping farms in operation, and tourism, by preserving open space, as well as benefiting wildlife and protecting water quality.
Close to 50 people packed the commissioners’ meeting room and the overwhelming majority spoke in favor of the program and were opposed to placing it on the ballot again.
“This is about saving what we saw when we moved in,” said Bob Popham, who placed his family ranch under a conservation easement using some OLB funds. He said he couldn’t understand people being put off by the cost since giving up a few cups of coffee each month would pay for it.
About 20 people spoke passionately in support of the program. A few spoke against it.
Jan Wisniewski, President of the Ravalli County Planning Board, said he thought a lot of the land going into easements was not developable anyway.
“When this passed there was a lot of money flowing in the valley,” said Wisniewski. “Now things have changed.”
Planning Board member Bill Menager said that his issue was giving tax dollars to help private individuals.
Commissioner J.R. Iman said that the OLB program transcends the up and down of the economy by taking a long term approach.
“The fact of the matter is that the voters told us it is a long term plan and they were willing to commit to it,” said Iman. He said if there is something wrong with the program the way to change it is not to cut off the money.
Commissioner Suzy Foss said that she did not vote for the Open Lands Bond in 2006 due to concerns she had about the handling of conservation easements elsewhere that she was aware of. But over the last two years her concerns have been allayed by the way in which this program was being implemented. She said at this time it is something her family is even considering.
“Were my father-in-law alive today, he would embrace this,” said Foss. “I’m not going to undo a public vote.” she added.
Stoltz said that he put the issue on the agenda because, “We represent the minority too.” He thanked everyone for coming and explaining how the program was working.
Constrained by parliamentary procedure from making negative motions, Commissioner Iman said, “Don’t shoot me, but I move to place the Open Lands Bond program on the next ballot.”
The motion died due to lack of a second.