Open space advocates wrestle with ballot question

MINDEN - Plans to begin crafting a ballot question on paying for open space were delayed because backers aren't sure of their own goals.

The semi-private Open Space and Agricultural Committee, composed of private landowners and public representatives, decided Monday to reverse action taken in October in favor of a ballot question. The question may have incorporated funding mechanisms such as a quarter-cent sales tax or a real estate transfer fee to buy development rights from ranchers, keeping their land open.

But the action was overruled based on concerns that public opinion on open space hasn't been adequately researched. Some committee members suggested waiting until a scientific survey and a series of public workshops on open space are complete, while others said commitments from the land owners are key.

"You could get a million dollars a year (to buy open space) and if nobody wants to do it, then what?" asked Carson Valley rancher Nate Leising.

"What really counts is who's willing to participate," said Ame Hellman, a planning commission member who also works for the American Land Conservancy, a group that coordinates open space preservation efforts.

Committee Chairman Dave Bolick, who is also the executive director of the Carson Valley Chamber of Commerce, said any tax-hike proposal will face pitfalls.

A quarter-cent sales tax hike would be competing with an unrelated proposal to increase Douglas County's gas tax by a quarter-cent to pay for roads.

"I bounced this off my board, and they weren't real thrilled with having two separate taxes on," said Bolick.

Plus, a real estate transfer tax, he said, would be likely to draw "organized opposition" from builders, property sellers and possibly the chamber.

"There was great concern of the potential that there would be really organized opposition for a property transfer tax," he said. "Potentially all those (groups) could come out in direct opposition to a real estate transfer, where there would be less chance of really organized opposition to the quarter-cent sales tax."

"If we get too many ballot issues on the ballot, they're (voters) not going to think about it rationally," said Jacques Etchegoyhen, a Douglas County commissioner.

The open space group members agreed that a ballot question, if pursued, should be presented in whichever election the gas tax is not. County leaders haven't decided when the gas tax question will go to voters.

The committee members did agree to bring in a consultant on open space who might be able to jump-start the process.

Steve Lewis of the Douglas County cooperative extension office said the group will pay $500 to bring David Hansen, a consultant from Marin County, Calif., to Gardnerville for a day.

Hansen could give examples of strategies other communities have used to protect their open spaces, said Lewis, and provide direction for Douglas.

"I don't think we really know what we need to accomplish," said Lewis. "He has dealt with communities that are in our situations. He may pose some suggestions and strategies."

Lewis said Hansen will be asked to meet with the open space group Dec. 3.


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