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Douglas gets good grades for open space planning

by Christy Chalmers

After four days of comparing notes on managing growth with leaders from other Western U.S. counties, Douglas County Planning Commissioner Mike Hayes said it best:

“We went all the way to Montana to find out Douglas County is breaking trail for other areas.”

Hayes, County Manager Dan Holler and County Commissioners Steve Weissinger and Jacques Etchegoyhen spent four days last week in Red Lodge, Mont. attending the Western Community Stewardship Forum. The invitation-only conference included six other counties from Idaho, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana.

The conference was hosted by the National Association of Counties and the Sonoran Institute, a conservation-oriented group that helped produce two open space workshops held in Douglas County in 1999.

The Montana conference was intended as an exchange of ideas between Western counties that are trying to balance growth with cultural preservation, but the Douglas delegates found themselves dispensing advice and ideas because, as Hayes put it, Douglas is “literally head and shoulders above these other people.

“‘Cutting-edge’ is probably a cliche by now, but that is the word for Douglas County and our planning efforts,” said Hayes, who has been on the county planning commission since 1994 and was a member of the master plan steering committee before that.

Etchegoyhen and Holler said the other participating counties, like Douglas, are struggling with common issues like property rights, land use and preservation of their ranches and open spaces. But unlike some of the other counties, Douglas has a master plan that outlines the zoning and land uses that are expected to guide growth through 2016. The plan was adopted in 1996 after several years of work.

“It was fascinating for us to realize that we’re absolutely at the forefront of good planning efforts,” said Etchegoyhen, who is also a planning commission and master planning steering committee alum. “This helped us to see how far we’ve come.”

The men said other county representatives were intrigued by the Lincoln-Douglas Exchange, a proposal that would use the proceeds of federal land sales in Lincoln County to purchase development rights in Douglas County. In theory, the proposal would benefit both areas by expanding Lincoln County’s tax base and preserving Douglas County’s undeveloped lands.

“Every county there thought it was a wonderful idea,” said Etchegoyhen.

“The more we talked, the more the momentum built,” said Hayes. “I don’t think anybody had thought of doing this before.”

Douglas County is developing an ambitious open space preservation plan. A semi-private coalition of ranchers, business people and landowners has been working for over a year to identify methods for preserving open space, and the county planning commission held a series of workshops that indicated Douglas residents heavily favor open space preservation.

A recent telephone survey indicated 59 percent of the 400 respondents would support a quarter-cent sales tax hike to pay for preserving the open land. The county commission is scheduled to decide on a ballot question, which could include the sales tax hike, on Thursday.

For Hayes and Etchegoyhen, the conference underscored the county’s open space preservation efforts, which are rooted in the master planning process.

“I feel like I’ve been chasing this thing for a decade. It was like a validation for all the blood, sweat and tears we put in,” said Hayes.

“It confirmed where we’re headed,” said Etchegoyhen. “We’re definitely on the right track.”