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New chair is open space advocate

by Christy Chalmers

Ame Hellman is the new chairwoman of the Douglas County Planning Commission and the special projects director for The Nature Conservancy’s Nevada chapter.

She also jokes that she’s “part of the problem” those groups are trying to solve, because she and her family live on 40 acres near Foothill and Mottsville roads, and 40-acre ranchettes have been decried as a blow to viable ranches and a step into subdivisions.

“It’s not like we took prime ranchland and aren’t working it, but I still feel a little guilty,” she says.

Hellman, a Carson Valley resident since 1991, recently completed her first full year on the planning commission, which advises the Douglas County Commission on land use issues. She was elected chairwoman of the group Tuesday, succeeding Mike Hayes.

Hellman said she was flattered by the move.

“He’s a hard act to follow,” she said. “I hope I can fill his shoes.”

Though being addressed as “madam chairwoman” may take some getting used to, Hellman is ready to work. Preservation of open space and agricultural lands is a top priority, and the county commission has emphasized that the planning board should lead the effort.

Hellman said she hopes the planning board will help focus policies for conservation easements, in which land owners are paid to keep their property open, develop a trail plan and help implement development right transfer programs, an option that has been outlined but never used.

Hellman first became familiar with those policies after moving to the Valley.

She grew up in Virginia and moved to Colorado to attend college. She stayed for law school and practiced family law for three years until she met her husband, Doug, whose family has lived in the Lake Tahoe area for almost 40 years. The move to Nevada, where Douglas County’s master plan revision process was in full swing, followed and Hellman’s interest in land conservation was reawakened.

“Denver is a great example of what we don’t want to be,” said Hellman. “(Carson Valley) made such a visual impression on me. It seemed to me to be a place that needed to be protected. We were obviously at a crossroads here.”

She wasn’t working at the time, but attended several open space preservation workshops. She became a spokesperson for land preservation efforts when Job’s Peak Ranch, an upscale subdivision on the western foothills, was developed. That activism evolved into a position with the American Land Conservancy, a private group that preserves land through exchanges and purchase programs.

Hellman left the American Land Conservancy in 1999, citing a need for a change of pace, but her work with the group was not unnoticed by some Douglas County leaders.

When Hellman was first appointed in 1998 to finish the term of a planning member who resigned, the county commission split 3-2.

The dissenting board members said they considered Hellman a liberal who didn’t share their conservative philosophies. One also wondered if the American Land Conservancy work would interfere with her planning commission duties.

Hellman got an opinion from the state ethics commission stating there was no conflict of interest, and she believes it would also apply to her new job, as special projects director for The Nature Conservancy, which does work similar to that of the American Land Conservancy.

“If anything, I think it’s a nice mesh,” she said of the planning commission and Nature Conservancy work. “It gives me an added perspective.”

As a non-profit organization, she says The Nature Conservancy isn’t looking for windfalls from land exchanges or preserving open space. The group only deals with willing sellers, and the landowners are paid for their participation.

“We’re not in the business of condemning land,” said Hellman. “It’s a purchase. Money changes hands.”

She thinks developers and contractors who sit on the planning commission have a greater risk of conflicts, because they might be asked to review development requests and land use changes that would bring them business.

Though she is, in her words, “living and breathing the open space issues,” Hellman finds time to ride her horses. She grew up doing hunter-jumper equestrian events, and more recently competed in dressage events. Daughters Sarah, 15, and Hannah, 8, are budding equestrians.

Hellman’s siblings and family still live in the eastern U.S., but Hellman says she’s been “bitten by the Western bug,” and thinks she’s found a permanent home, worth protecting from the “throw-away mentality” that more empty land is just a valley or two away.

“That is a myth in the West. There’s nowhere else to go,” said Hellman. “If we want to see our quality of life grow, we have to protect that or we’ll become the next Truckee Meadows.”

She is encouraged that groups that have opposed each other in the past, like ranchers and environmentalists, are beginning to compromise and cooperate. Likewise, land preservation plans are becoming more popular.

“I think we just need to have a few of our own here,” she said. “We will, eventually. It just takes time.”