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Open space ballot question raises queries

by Christy Chalmers

A potential ballot question on preserving Douglas County’s open space is raising many questions of its own.

The Douglas County Commission is set to discuss the matter Thursday. At a March 2 meeting, several members indicated they would support asking voters if they’re willing to pay to preserve the privately-owned, undeveloped land that provides the Carson Valley’s vaunted beauty.

But they also expressed skepticism about the success of a ballot question, because a specific plan for managing and paying for open land hasn’t been decided.

An informal survey done by the county planning commission indicated interest in preserving open land, and a willingness to pay, and a separate group has also considered a ballot question.

Both groups have theorized that proceeds from any public funding would be used to pay land owners for development rights, essentially limiting the land use to ranching or purposes that don’t involve intense development.

At least two county commissioners think far more work is needed.

“Open space is like motherhood and apple pie. Everybody supports it until you’re asked to pay for it, and then you say ‘what am I paying for?'” said Commissioner Don Miner, who represents the Lake Tahoe areas. “People need to know what they’re buying, and when the answer is just open space, it’s not enough. It needs some real definition.”

Some answers might be provided by an open space management plan, a document that would define open space and goals for handling it. Miner noted a management plan would be required if voters are asked for a real estate transfer tax or a property tax hike, which are two possible options for funding open space preservation.

A sales tax could also be sought.

Commissioner Kelly Kite, who represents the north Carson Valley area, says the open space management plan is crucial before a question could even be drafted.

Without a plan and information on land value and possible revenues, voters can’t make an informed decision, he said.

“I think there’s too much still be determined before I’d vote for it as an individual,” said Kite.

Commissioner Steve Weissinger, who represents the Gardnerville Ranchos, said he agrees with Commissioner Bernie Curtis that open space preservation should be a local endeavor.

“I think if the people of the Carson Valley are serious about this issue, we need to take care of it ourselves,” he said. “We’re not going to get a lot of cooperation from the federal government.”

Weissinger said he would list the possible tax levies in the question, though Miner and Kite cited a general resistance to taxes, as well as the fact that revenue estimates – and the amount of land that could be affected – are unknown.

“Taxes are the last thing we want to do,” said Miner. “In order to have any chance of passing, the details have to be known well in advance.”

Despite the questions, the commissioners say they agree with letting voters decide.

“I can’t vote on something I don’t understand,” said Kite. “But I would put it on, because I feel the voters should have a right to make their own decision.”

Details

What: Douglas County Commission meeting to decide if a ballot question on open space will be pursued

When: Thursday, 1:30 p.m. at the county administration building, 175 Highway 50, Stateline.