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County manager talks about open space

by Sheila Gardner

The definition of “grass roots” goes to the heart of the effort to preserve open space in Douglas County.

According to Webster, “grass roots” means “ordinary citizens, especially as contrasted with the leadership or elite; the agricultural and rural areas of a country; the people inhabiting these areas, especially as a political, social or economic group.”

A coalition of ranchers, business people and community members has been working for several months to create support for the “Lincoln-Douglas exchange.” In the proposal, government-owned property in Lincoln County would be sold to a private party and the proceeds would be used to buy agricultural land in Douglas to be left as open space.

The Open Space and Agricultural Lands Protection panel made a presentation to the Douglas County Planning Commission on Tuesday, following a similar appearance before Douglas County commissioners on Aug. 5.

“This is the right time to be having these discussions,” said County Manager Dan Holler, who has been authorized by county commissioners to work with open lands committee in determining community interest.

“It’s easier to discuss how to retain open space rather than how to create it,” Holler said. “How do you protect it before it’s gone?”

Holler said the community needs to focus on three issues:

What is open space? What’s the distinction between open space and agriculture land?

How is the criteria established? If Douglas County has $1 million, what should we buy? Why? What makes one piece of property more valuable than another?

Who makes the decisions? Is a committee appointed, elected? Public-private partnership? How do you avoid conflicts?

“I haven’t really heard any opposition, just questions,” said Holler. “I haven’t heard anybody say they are against open space. The question becomes, how do we maintain it? At what price?”

At some point in the discussion, everyone becomes involved, Holler said.

“The first level concerns people who are proactive, who want to do something immediately. At the second level, you have people who begin to understand the issue and want to see something done. At the third level, you have people who come in after the fact and say, ‘The open space is lost. Why did you let this happen?'” Holler said.

Holler said there is always a group which has no interest in the process and believes the land should be left in private hands, allowing property owners to do what they wish.

Other issues to be resolved include how property rights are purchased; health and safety issues; impact on the county’s master plan; at what financial level residents are willing to become involved; and how long land restrictions would last.

A quarter-cent sales tax hike which addressed similar issues failed a few years ago, but Holler believes voters felt the issue was too broad. If a similar measure restricted use of the funds to the purchase of open space, it might have a better chance with the electorate.

If Douglas County raised its own funds for land purchases, there would be more say over how the money was spent and how the easements would be enforced.

Holler expects the planning process to take the next two years.

He hopes to have a report ready for commissioners by the end of September on the status of the open lands issue in Douglas County.

“Right now, we have more questions than answers,” Holler said.