Residents wrestle with open space debate | RecordCourier.com
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Residents wrestle with open space debate

by Sheila Gardner

Outside, Christmas lights and decorations sparkled along a stretch of Esmeralda Avenue in front of the CVIC Hall in Minden. Inside the hall, under green plastic garlands and Styrofoam stars sprinkled with gold glitter, debate continued on an issue that knows no season.

The issue is open space: how to define it and whether the citizens of Douglas County want to preserve farm and ranch land enough to pay for it.

More than 50 residents, a panel of planning commissioners, and representatives of the open space committee and Bureau of Land Management talked Wednesday at one of the county’s open space workshops.

For two hours, questions went back and forth, and participants were asked to fill out a questionnaire to gauge their interest in the future of the Carson Valley’s open space.

“Open space really depends on where you are applying the definition,” said outgoing planning commissioner Bob Gaw. “Marin County has an excellent open space plan, but it applies only to them; Montana has open space only for them.

“Our open space is defined differently. Very simply, it’s agricultural preservation that eliminates a flooding potential, acts as cost containment for other taxpayers, mitigates pollution, recharges the aquifer and slows down growth,” said Gaw.

“The intangible benefit is the scenic, view enhancement. The key for the whole open space program is agriculture preservation,” he said.

Gardnerville businessman Rick Campbell asked how open space would be acquired, citing his own assessment of the Douglas County budget, which he said indicates there is more than $600,000 of unassigned revenue in the general fund.

“What other tools are really being investigated other than a tax?” he asked.

n White paper. He was referred to the county’s “white paper” analysis which lists 11 funding options for the acquisition and preservation of open space. Ten of those are tax- or fee-based; the last is private donation of land or funds.

“What other mechanisms there are besides taxes have not been investigated very well,” said Steve Lewis, a member of the open space committee. “That would be a great job for somebody to investigate.”

George Sorich, who moved to Carson Valley a year ago, said Wednesday’s meeting made him feel 25 years younger.

“I went to a meeting in Camarillo, Calif., in Ventura County just like this 25 years ago,” he said. “If you want to see the way not to preserve open space, look there. It seems minds here are open. I really like that. Development is not bad, we need development to continue. It’s how we do that.”

Rancher Barbara Byington, also the Douglas County assessor, said she’s seen tremendous growth in Carson Valley since she arrived in 1950.

“The bottom line is we’re bringing more and more people in here and that takes more money from taxpayers to support. (Development) does not foot the bill. The biggest problem we have is finding a source of revenue,” Byington said.

Rancher Jerry Whitmire, a member of the open space committee, said he’d arrived in Carson Valley from a job in a California housing development which turned out 300 new homes a day.

“Our ranchlands are almost a mirage,” Whitmire said. “It’s almost impossible to restore ranchland once it’s developed. Every successful preservation effort revolves around creating a local funding mechanism. You can’t put all your eggs in one basket and depend on the Bureau of Land Management to make this work for you.”

n Partial payment. Johnson Lane resident John Cobourn echoed Whitmire’s statements, saying grants and private funding are more likely if a community is willing to pay its share.

“Having a tax may mean we pay a little bit to protect open space, but (an agency) will ask, ‘Are locals paying a little bit?’ If you can say yes, then they may come in with millions in grants,” Cobourn said. “If the answer is no, they won’t touch it.”

Cobourn, a watershed management specialist for the state, said protecting the flood plain from urban development is the most effective means the county has to curtail costs.

Planning commissioner and rancher Virginia Henningsen, whose term also expires this year, said she was looking for direction from the public.

“I think you all need to understand and perhaps say to us, ‘Do we want open space?’ Perhaps we’re not on the right track. Let us know exactly what you want.”

Henningsen’s ranch is one of the properties being considered in the pilot land exchange project.

Like Gaw, Henningsen did not seek reappointment to the planning commission.

Planning officials said that the so-called Lincoln County-Douglas County land exchange is only one tool for the purchase of development rights. The program would raise funds by selling government-managed lands in Lincoln County with proceeds used to buy development rights and place conservation easements on property in Douglas County.

n Voluntary. Speakers on Wednesday emphasized the program is voluntary.

“The Bureau of Land Management has no interest in doing this alone, nor can we do this alone,” said BLM official Mike McQueen. “I know this is funny coming from the federal government, but we’re here to help.”

Planning commission chairman Michael Hayes said the land exchange is only a small part of the open space-ag land preservation effort.

“Out of 25,000 acres, you’re only looking at about 10 percent. The Lincoln-Douglas exchange is a way of purchasing conservation easements worked out between the property owners and Bureau of Land Management. It’s just a tool, just a small part of a bigger effort to preserve open space and ag land.”

Wednesday’s workshop was one of seven planned over two months. The series concludes at the end of January, after which officials will evaluate the questionnaires and determine the next course of action.