Neighborly advice: How Steamboat Springs saved open space, water and the ranching way of life by planning ahead
August 29, 2008
Call it the law of unintended consequences ” a place promotes “Wide Open Spaces” to attract people, but as more people buy into the idea and move to the area, those wide open spaces are lost.
It’s estimated the population of the state of Colorado will jump from 4.94 million in 2008 to 7.16 million by 2030, according to the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
Grand County, estimated to fall right in line with that growth, could nearly double in population.
That means 15,000 more people will be looking for a place to rent or ground to own. Those people will be looking for jobs, looking for county, town and district services, looking for water to use and searching for the thing that brought homesteaders to the place more than a century ago ” a better life.
If neighboring Summit County follows that same model, it will reach close to 55,000 people in 2030, and Routt could see 27,000 residents.
“Centrally located” lands, still wide-open in Grand County, are prime for the spillover.
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Since there are no gates on Berthoud, Trail Ridge, Ute and Rabbit Ears passes, and since a good portion of business owners are ready to cash in on the economic windfall of such growth, now is a good time to examine the landscapes, air and water quality, and sense of community on which residents depend every day.
Grand County is 68 percent public lands, which means growth is concentrated in the valleys where ranchers, the core of the county’s heritage, sought out meadowlands for agriculture. Snaking through those valleys are the Fraser and Colorado rivers.
In preliminary results of the Grand County Master Plan, residents polled ranked open space, recreational opportunities, sense of community, wildlife habitat, scenic and visual quality, and water quality and quantity highest in what is valued, with water topping the charts at 90.4 percent.
The study goes on to say that residents want their growth directed to the towns, that they want to maintain wildlife habitat, the existing ranchland and culture and want to minimize the impact of development.
Is it too late to save Grand County’s treasured history, traditions, lands, historic buildings and water?
No, but it is getting late.
In 2000, after the last master plan was adopted, an open-space ballot issue loosely posed this question: “OK public, how much are you willing to support what you say you value so much?”
A 7-year taxpayer commitment to dedicate 2 mills to conservation efforts, which would have raised $5,106,080 for preserving what people claimed was most important to them, died miserably with a 71 percent no-vote against a 29 percent yes-vote.
If the taxpayer will isn’t there to save Grand County open space and natural resources, how will it be done? To answer this question, we visited neighboring Routt County ” a growing resort community with an agricultural heritage not much different from our own.
Routt County passed a similar conservation bond in 1996.
Grand County’s neighbor, with a commercial airport since the late 1970s and a big-name investment company buying Steamboat’s ski area sooner than Winter Park’s, faced development challenges early.
Routt County has 16,000 residents, and most of them, around 10,000, live in Steamboat Springs.
In 1995, developers proposed a new town and ski resort with 3,000 residents and 300,000 square-feet of commercial space at Lake Catamont near Steamboat. The plan dissolved when the development company hit financial problems, and another group bought the land and developed on a much smaller scale, but the jolt of almost losing one of Routt County’s cherished places motivated citizens into action.
Lead by a grassroots committee, a vision plan survey was conducted over the course of 1.5 years. The answers sounded similar to the Master Plan survey conducted in Grand County ” residents valued water and open space.
From that study, called Vision 2020, public policy was based on the master plans that followed. An update of the plan, called 2030, is currently under way.
In 1996, the means to conserve open space was realized when 51 percent of Routt County voters approved a 10 year, 1 percent mill levy that generated $3.6 million.
Again in 2005, 59 percent of the voters upped that mill to 1.5 percent for another 25 years, meaning $20.8 million is being generated by residents to purchase development rights from willing landowners to preserve open space.
“What’s happens with Routt County is we pay for the things that we value,” said Arianthe C. Stettner, former Steamboat Springs council member who is seeking a master’s degree in historic preservation.
Other conservation measures have passed in Park, Pitkin, Gunnison, Larimer, Boulder, Eagle, Douglas and Jefferson counties ” to name a few of the 19 counties in Colorado that have guaranteed open-space purchased by taxpayers.
“The public was interested in the same preservation objectives it had years earlier that are under even more pressure now, so it became even more important,” said Ron Roundtree, who chairs the Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) citizens advisory committee. The committee makes recommendations for conservation projects, but county commissioners make the final decision on how funds are spent.
Because of the taxpayers, Routt County now has 59,000 acres of agricultural land protected in conservation easements ” around 10 percent of the total private land in the county. Ranchers in Routt County have been paid as much as $2 million for their development rights.
“Routt County has been recognized as a real leader of agricultural land protection in the Intermountain West,” said C.J Mucklow, Colorado Extension Director of Agriculture in Steamboat.
Conservationists recognize, and Routt County residents learned more than a decade ago, protecting ranchland is the key to protecting open-space vistas, wildlife habitats and to keeping water on the Western Slope rather than having it diverted.
Save land, save water
Agriculture protected on the Yampa River has saved a river habitat deemed extremely rare. The Nature Conservancy bought a working ranch in 1996 from the Carpenter family who chose to protect the land rather than develop it. The Carpenter Ranch has 150 cattle and produces 800 to 900 tons of hay on land that includes the banks of the Yampa River. With its interest in the riparian habitat along the Yampa, the Conservancy set out to buy development rights on not only that ranch, but 10,000 acres along the river, including 12 miles of river corridor, at the price of developmental land values.
The funds gained from property taxes were used to leverage other funds from partners such as Great Outdoors Colorado and the Cattleman’s Association.
According to Geoff Blakeslee with the Nature Conservancy, who for 11 years served as ranch manager at Carpenter Ranch, the “pots of money” land owners gain in the transactions helps with their estate planning and to diversify income.
“No matter what you do, you’re deciding something for your children. In some cases, inheriting a ranch can be a real burden to the next generation,” Blakeslee said.
Having an easement in place devalues the property and provides less of a tax burden to those who care for it next. It also allows some people who otherwise could not afford to buy ranchland, but desire the lifestyle, an opportunity to scratch out a living in ranching, he said.
But the program can’t work without willing landowners partnering with the community, he said. With today’s real-estate prices compared to the decreasing price of beef and the rising cost of doing business, the choices are extremely difficult for conventional ranching families.
“Landowners truly are the key partners that make conservation work in Routt County,” Roundtree said.
Forgetting where you come from
In the ’90s, Routt County recognized that its growing resort culture was vastly out of touch with the county’s ranching heritage. After Vision 20/20, a nonprofit organization called the Community Agriculture Alliance was formed to help the agricultural community adapt to changes in the local and regional economy. The organization also aimed to bridge cultural differences between resort and agricultural industries.
“We had a resort community that marketed the Western heritage,” said Executive Director Marsha Daughenbaugh, who worked for the USDA for 25 years, “and an agricultural world that wanted to pretend for a long time the other didn’t exist.
“We noticed that people weren’t communicating with each other. So, a group of community leaders got together and asked what can we do about this.”
The organization introduces agricultural products to the community, conducts ranch tours and providing classroom instruction to real estate agents on agricultural lands. Daughenbaugh also serves as an ag-liaison at community planning meetings.
“I find myself many, many times being the only one in the room that is saying, ‘yeah, but, don’t forget about agriculture’,” Daughenbaugh said. “Are you thinking about what the impact of your decisions today might be on the ag world?”
Open space a draw for tourists
A Colorado State University Extension study released in the mid-90s and again in 2005 showed that impact on the ag world has a direct impact on the tourism industry.
A canvassing of visitors to Steamboat Springs showed that about half would not visit Steamboat if its historic character and natural beauty were lost. The study calculates that ranchlands and open space add $36 million annually to tourism dollars. In other words, vistas have a higher value than the beef raised on open lands.
On another front, Routt County voters recognized the importance of heritage and historic buildings by opting to permanently tax themselves to support local museums. Today, preserving the past is supported by a small portion of property tax, about 1/3 of a mill annually.
“We weren’t asked for a lot, but we were asked for it forever,” Stettner said. For museums, the tax provides up to half of their annual budget.
Meanwhile, another organization called “Historic Routt County” works with property owners to document their historic ranches and rural properties through cultural resource surveys, architectural drawings and site plans, and provides information on incentives to protect historic buildings.
County and city policy-making is on-track to direct growth, according to Routt County Commissioner Chairman Diane Mitsch Bush, a former Routt County planning commission member and former professor of sociology and social policy.
Steamboat Springs has worked with state agencies and the Bureau of Land Management to preserve nearby Emerald Mountain from development. And, in partnership with a local financier, the city also preserved 6 acres of ranchland along the Yampa River for a public botanical park and soccer fields.
What’s happening outside of Steamboat reflects a commitment to keeping countryside looking like countryside.
“The commercial stops abruptly as you go out of town,” Mitsch Bush said, sitting in her office at the historic county courthouse in Steamboat Springs. “From the Routt County master plan, the county will not approve urban-type development in unincorporated Routt County, and in fact, we have not approved any new subdivisions or any type of development of that sort, with the exception of LPS’s (Land Preservation Subdivisions, or cluster development protecting large tracts of open space) since 1995.
“Because if you don’t, you get sprawl. And sprawl just in and of itself diminishes quality of life, diminishes wildlife habitat, it diminishes some of the industries that we rely on, such as hunting, fishing, hiking all the backcountry industries of one kind or another, but moreover, it’s much more expensive to serve, so it costs our taxpayers money. It’s not just an aesthetic notion.
“That has been the notion of boards and county commissioners since 1992 in Routt County.”
” To reach Tonya Bina, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or 970-887-3334 ext. 19603.