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Open space ballot ready to go

Christy Chalmers

After a few late nights and line-by-line edits, a ballot question on raising Douglas County’s sales tax is finished.

The carefully chosen words that make up the question, an explanation and arguments for and against it were approved Thursday evening during the last of three special meetings. The meetings included painstaking scrutiny and discussions on semantics, such as using the word “preservation” instead of “protection” and whether to capitalize key phrases.

The result, said county commission chairman Jacques Etchegoyhen, is a clear, balanced question on raising the sales tax by a quarter cent to pay for preserving undeveloped land.

“I think we did a very good job of presenting the pros and the cons,” he said. “We have two clear choices: Develop or not.”

Voters will decide in November if they want to raise the sales tax to 7 percent and use the proceeds from the increase to help preserve open land. Options, policies and methods for doing that are outlined in a management plan that is being reviewed.

The plan has not been adopted and will be discussed again in August. County Commissioner Don Miner said he thinks the plan is worth a few special meetings of its own.

“There are some elements in there that need to be beefed up to be consistent with what we’ve just adopted,” he said after the ballot language was completed.

County Manager Dan Holler said the management plan will probably be ready for adoption in September, before early voting starts and in plenty of time for residents to review it.

Completion of the ballot text comes after several months of workshops and meetings that were held to gauge community interest in preserving open land. Informal surveys reflected interest in keeping the land open, and a professional poll earlier in the year showed 59 percent of the 400 people asked would be willing to pay a higher sales tax to preserve undeveloped land.

Proponents, including a semi-private coalition that has evolved into a campaign committee, cite the benefits of limiting development in flood plains and on agricultural land, and emphasize that the program will be voluntary, with landowners paid to keep the land undeveloped.

Opponents include a small group of ranchers who regard the proposal as a government program that views privately-owned land as a community asset. They say public money shouldn’t be involved and are concerned their property rights will be abridged.