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Residents debate open space

by Linda Hiller

If the Carson Valley is to remain open and green – a place where ranchers and farmers can make a good living and are encouraged to stay in business and not “sell out” to developers – people of the Valley need to come together to make it happen.

This was the message that trumpeted through loud and clear at the second session of the Open Space and Agricultural Lands and Protection Workshop Saturday.

Arnold Settelmeyer, whose family came to the Carson Valley in 1880, said that when he graduated from high school in the Valley, there were 2,200 people living here.

“Now, we’re closing in on 40,000,” he said.

Approximately 55 landowners, developers, community leaders, federal employees and interested residents attended the five-hour session facilitated by Luther Propst, of the the Sonoran Institute headquartered in Tucson, Ariz.

Established in 1991, the Sonoran Institute is a tax-exempt organization whose premise is “change is inevitable, but it does not have to come at the expense of what citizens and communities value.”

Propst sees the Institute’s role as that of a bridge-builder, helping to bring the diverse factions of a community together, to realize that in cooperating they will likely find that they have more in common than not. It can’t be just ranchers vs. developers, he said, because most people in a beautiful area such as the Carson Valley will find that they share the same values.

“We find that working in conservation at a local level puts us with people who are really working together to protect a place they feel connected to,” said Barb Cestero, program associate from the Sonoran Institute’s Bozeman office. She worked with the workshop’s initial steering committee.

“I felt very optimistic that I was working with the leaders of the community who are really connected, and who really care,” she said. “This can be a complicated process, but not impossible.”

Using tools. Propst summarized the open space preservation “tools” available, including regulations such as maximum or minimum lot sizes, cluster development, right-to-farm laws, designated agriculture districts, and the purchase or trade of development rights and/or conservation easements.

This last tool, he said, has great potential in the Carson Valley, which has outstanding scenic and wildlife values.

Saturday’s workshop found participants separated into eight groups, each with a steering committee facilitator present to guide the brainstorming. Following the 1-1/2 hour break-out session, each group presented their findings to all the participants.

Group suggestions. Among the common suggestions, many groups supported the idea of an agricultural district, some sort of change in the inheritance taxes, so ranchers could pass their ranches on to their children, using the sale or trade of development rights to prevent the eventual urban development of ranch land, and to concentrate on building in the benchlands of the Valley – specifically toward the East Valley area instead of in the Valley’s bottomland.

“If we preserve these (lowland) irrigation areas for recharging the underground aquifer, we increase the value of the uplands and foothills,” said Chris Vasey of Group 2. “Also, we need to stay away from developing in the flood zones. Look at the Truckee Meadows. Everyone pays for it when development is in the flood zone and it floods.”

Following the presentation of all the groups, Propst helped to summarize the data.

“People seem to agree that we want to protect the Valley, protect recreation and work toward preserving open space,” he said.

Watch for final report. Participants decided to write a final report of the two-day workshop and have it completed by July 1. At that time, the findings will be presented to the Douglas County commissioners and the town boards of Minden and Gardnerville.

“The county needs to play a leadership role in this,” Vasey said.

Rancher James Settelmeyer suggested that a system of checks and balances be implemented so that no one entity has too much power in this important issue.

He suggested that the commissioners, the steering committee and the Carson Valley Conservation District be coordinated by one person designated to act as the spokesperson and go-between.

This idea will be presented to the county commissioners in July, along with the final report from the workshops.