Down to the wire on open space initiative |

Down to the wire on open space initiative

Christy Chalmers, staff writer

The signs are small, and the slogans succinct:

“Save it or pave it!”

“Ranch owner against tax.”

“Now you see it, now you don’t.”

“No new taxes.”

They’re accompanied by text encouraging yes or no votes on Douglas County’s question No. 1, which asks for a quarter-cent sales tax hike to pay for preserving undeveloped land.

The signs have appeared on several Carson Valley ranches as the election approaches. Proceeds of the tax, estimated at $1.2 million a year, would be dedicated to preserving undeveloped land such as ranches, stream corridors and mountain slopes.

One proposal is to use the tax money to buy development rights from ranchers. In theory, they would be paid what they could have earned by developing the land, but the land will stay open.

Proponents argue the tax increase is a fair and inexpensive way to preserve the views and avoid paying for the streets, sewers and other services that development requires. Members of the Douglas County Agriculture and Open Space Committee, which is lobbying for the question, like to reference the uncontrolled sprawl that characterizes much of Southern California.

“You’re lucky if you can find an orange grove in Southern California. We don’t want that lost here,” said Dan Kaffer, a resource and conservation consultant, during a recent town hall meeting the committee held.

“This is something we can do locally. In five years, it’s going to be too late,” added committee member Linda Turria, an accountant who lives in Gardnerville.

Opponents say they aren’t opposed to open space, but want more details about who would benefit and how the program would work. They also question the fairness of using a public sales tax for financing transactions involving private land.

“(Government) should not be in the real estate business,” said Dave Williams, owner of Aervoe Pacific and a member of the Concerned Citizens Against the Tax Committee. “This land is not land you can take your children to and say ‘Look what we’ve preserved,’ because if you cross that fence, you’ll be arrested for trespassing.”

Gardnerville rancher Nate Leising says other options like allowing ranchers to diversify their businesses should be considered.

“Taxation is not the way to go. The way to go is to allow the private landowners to do what they need to do to stay in business,” he said. “Right now, we’re voting on something that we don’t have a clue what it is.”

Douglas County has adopted a plan that outlines goals and strategies for preserving open space. In addition to the sales tax increase, it lists a combination of options such as land exchanges, estate planning and gifts or donations that could be done by public or private agencies. Money from a sales tax hike could be paired with outside grants.

Supporters of the tax hike have held several meetings using a town hall format that gives them plenty of opportunities to emphasize the benefits of keeping land open. The Carson Valley Chamber of Commerce supports the tax hike.

The Business Council of Douglas County and the Douglas County Building Industry Association oppose the tax, as does the Carson Valley Agricultural Association, a group Leising founded.

Both sides claim concurrence for their stances from ranchers. The open space committee has gathered endorsements from more than a dozen ranchers who say they would be interested in selling development rights, while Leising and the Building Industry Association say many of the ranchers they’ve talked to don’t support the plan.

If approved, proponents estimate the tax increase would translate to an extra 25 cents for every $100 in taxable purchases. A person who buys $1,600 worth of items would pay an extra $4.

The increase would stay in effect until 2029. Douglas County’s sales tax rate, which is now 6.75 percent, would rise to 7 percent.