STATELINE - Douglas County Planning Commission Chairman Mike Hayes characterized his board as "a big, seven-person ear" and invited 20 ranchers to fill it with their opinions on preserving open space.
They did, and Hayes was surprised by what they had to say: No new taxes, even if the proceeds are for saving ranches. Get rid of the estate tax. Stop restricting secondary uses on ranches - the owners need those incomes to survive. Define open space - to some ranchers, Job's Peak is, but their property isn't.
" Let (agriculture) thrive, and you'll have your open space and your habitat," said Devere Dressler, whose family was one of the first in the Carson Valley.
His comments reflected the mood of several who spoke last week at a session to get the ranching community's opinions on preserving open space. The county is considering a conservation easement program in which owners of ranches and other open land would be paid for permanently blocking development on their property.
County leaders have broached the idea of new taxes to pay for the conservation efforts, but some ranchers said they don't want any new taxes.
"That just adds to that much more outcome and no income," said Genoa resident Dan Hickey.
"If the private sector wants to preserve open space, that's all right with me," said Gardnerville rancher Mel Schwake. "If it's voluntary, that's fine, but when it's forced on us, no thanks."
Most decried federal estate taxes, which they said have forced the sale or breakup of many family operations.
Others bristled at the restrictions on ranch land.
"It's kind of ironic that your open space just happens to be our land," said Fred Stodieck, whose property borders the Carson River west of Gardnerville. "When you talk about open space, you're not talking about anybody's land but ours. If we can't make money out of it in the business we're in, why shouldn't we be able to make money off of it by selling it?"
"I can't think of any ranch that just does ranching, that doesn't have some kind of subsidiary," added James Settelmeyer, whose family has ranches on either side of Minden and Gardnerville. "If they were here before you, what right do you have to pass a law upon them to say what they can and can't do? I don't think you have the right to tell us what we can and can't do."
"Ranchers are limited to commodities that right now are not making any money," noted Nate Leising.
The planning commission took no action, but several members said they hope the ranchers will appoint a board or spokesman to represent the agricultural community.
Hayes said he expects at least one more meeting with the ranchers to fine-tune a list of goals culled from their comments. An immediate task will be figuring out how to pay for open space without tax increases.
"I was surprised to see they felt so strongly about tax increases," said Hayes. "They're not interested in taxing themselves or anybody else, even if it's to pay for preserving their open space."
Hayes said he wants to research a proposal tagged "95-5" that was suggested during the meeting. The proposal would allow ranchers to use 5 percent of their land for secondary businesses as long as the rest remains in agricultural production.
Hayes said he hopes to discuss the open space program again before the end of the year, and preferably before the end of November.