Open space faces daunting odds
Groups and governments search for new tools to preserve land

Boulders catch the early morning sun on public land near Falls Creek. While this land will dodge development, hundreds of thousands of La Plata County acres are vulnerable to the current growth boom./Photo by Todd Newcomer

In the midst of the largest swell of growth and development in the Durango area’s history, a struggle is under way to keep some land as it is today – empty. Though efforts to preserve area open space have made great strides in recent years, they currently face an uphill battle. And as development proposals outpace conservation easements, land trusts and officials are searching for new ways to keep some land subdivision-free.

To date, the La Plata Open Space Conservancy has helped preserve 13,813 acres in La Plata County. The majority of this acreage has been voluntarily put into conservation easement, a binding contract that forever prevents development from occurring on the land. While nearly 14,000 acres of preserved property seems impressive, Kathy Roser, executive director of the conservancy, said there is still a long way to go.

“When you look at the big picture, it’s just a drop in the bucket,” she said.

Still, she added that many significant parcels in key locations have come under preservation, making for a somewhat hopeful picture. “When you look at some of the projects that have been completed and where they’re located, it’s significant.”

A growing list

The conservancy now has 45 projects on the to-do list, and this-ever growing number represents completely voluntary deals in which the landowner reaps only tax benefits. “Back in the ’90s, we went for a couple years without completing a single project,” Roser said. “We’re doing between 15 and 20 a year now.”

Reasons to preserve open space range across the board, according to Roser. “There are a million reasons of course,” she said. “It provides many, many benefits, and they’re not just pie-in-the-sky. They’re very real, including everything from food production to wildlife habitat.”

Recently, the conservancy has helped facilitate conservation easements of several key agricultural parcels in the southeast corner of the county. “Some of the most significant ones we’ve done recently were on farmland,” Roser said. “Those easements are now furthering local agriculture, which is hurting. In one case, we had a landowner take his tax credits and buy more land to make his operation more viable.”

However, Roser acknowledged that thousands of units are currently awaiting approval by city and county officials and growth has become an issue afflicting the entire county. “Typically, our efforts have focused on the river valleys,” she said. “That’s where the best land is for agriculture, wildlife and also development. But now, I think every place is threatened. We’re seeing a lot more development pressure in unusual places like the Dry Side.”

Roser said an unusual baby boom twist makes open space preservation even more paramount. “More than half of all the land in Colorado is government owned,” she said. “More than half of what’s left is owned by people over 55. That land is going to be changing hands in coming years.”

Under the gun

The sentiment that time is running out is shared by Tami Graham, land trust coordinator with the Animas Conservancy. A relatively new land preservation organization, the Animas Conservancy started in 2000 and now holds 12 voluntary easements for a total of 492 acres.

“I think we’re under the gun of development and growth, and we should all be very concerned with how we address it,” she said.

Graham continued, “This area’s going to continue to have growth demands. That’s not going to change. But I think it’s happening so fast.”

Like Roser, Graham acknowledged that business has never been better for local land trusts. She credited that progression largely to state rather than local policy.

The Pear Tree condos overlook the River Trails Ranch in the Animas Valley. Area land trusts are struggling to keep up with the volume of current development
proposals. River Trails Ranch has proposed building 800 units on this vacant land immediately north of Durango. /Photo by Todd Newcomer.

Specifically, she noted a change last fall whereby landowners can now realize up to $260,000 in tax credits, well up from a previous cap of $100,000. She also related a change in state law two years ago, allowing landowners to sell tax credits at 80 cents on the dollar and actually reap some direct cash benefit for conservation easements.

“Colorado has some of the best tax credits available to private landowners...and that improved last fall,” Graham said. “So on the one hand, we’re busier than ever, but it’s difficult for a nonprofit land trust to keep up with these levels of growth.”

Consequently, both Graham and Roser said that the entire country needs to start exploring other solutions. Citing voluntary conservation easements, Roser said, “I look at what we do as one tool in the tool box. I hope at some point, sooner rather than later, some other tools will come into play. One possible tool is government regulation, and I feel like it’s been under-utilized or not utilized at all.”

A look at the rulebooks

Within La Plata County’s land use regulations, open space is an encouraged standard, and most of the plans for the county’s districts offer density bonuses for clustering. County Planner Nancy Lauro also noted that the county’s requirement of 3 acres per home provides a different brand of open space.

“It’s all relative,” she said. “When you’re talking about one home per 3 acres, there’s a lot of open space on that lot.”

The county also is reassessing its approach to encouraging open space as it works on revising its land use regulations. Robert Bowie, director of current planning, said that the county’s open space regulations are “still evolving.”

“I don’t know that it’s working or to what extent,” he said. “Part of the code revision will look at whether current encouraged standards should be made required standards or just dropped.”

The city of Durango has taken a proactive approach to open space acquisition, particularly with the recent creation of the Durango Open Space Advisory Board. The citizens’ group had its first meeting in March and has been getting together once a month with a goal of implementing the city’s Open Space Master Plan.

Kevin Hall, the city’s Parks, Open Space and Trails development manager, remarked, “What essentially the plan does is talk about some of the important environmental values residents wanted to target at the time.”

Looking back at projects like the 271-acre Durango Mountain Park and the Animas River Trail, Hall said that the city’s open space record is a strong one. He added that the large projects are particularly successful given that the city has no direct funding source for open space.

“I would say the city has been very successful considering there’s no dedicated funding source and only a willing council and public,” Hall said.

As the advisory board looks to the future and potential acquisitions in and around the city, dollars will be paramount, according to Hall. “The Open Space Advisory Board has really made it clear that their immediate task is to identify funding sources and permanent funding sources,” he said.

Forging new tools

Meanwhile, a joint effort by county, city and citizens is plowing ahead. Since last fall, a working group has been studying an open space tool known as transferable development rights (TDRs). In brief, TDRs would enable the preservation of threatened areas by concentrating density in areas earmarked for development. Property rights would be bought in “sending areas,” parcels designated as vital open space. Developers would then be able to take these rights to urban, “receiving areas” and develop density in excess of regulations. Like efforts to date, TDRs would be voluntary and incentive based.

Durango City Planner Greg Hoch explained that City Council members and county commissioners have put the onus on the working group. If it can come up with an acceptable program, TDRs will likely become another tool in the open space tool box.

“The general direction we received from the majority of both elected bodies is to see if we could make this happen,” Hoch said. “They told us they would decide if they can go with it once we’ve got it worked out.”

Graham and the Animas Conservancy has been involved in the process and applauded it. “I think it’s a great model for citizens and officials working across municipal and county lines to form a plan,” she said.

Stacy Patton, a former planner and current consultant to the county Planning Department, is optimistic that TDRs will be adopted. “It’s absolutely a viable tool for the county,” she said.

Currently, the discussion has become highly technical, and Patton noted that there have been concerns over whether TDRs will fit with the Southern Ute Indian Tribe’s proposal for 2,500 units in the Grandview area.

“We’re still getting some who are concerned that the Grandview plan will be dense enough without TDRs,” she said. “We’re convinced it will work in some capacity at Grandview, and if not, it will be a good program for the rest of the county.”

However, the TDR working group plans on reaching a conclusive end prior to July 17, when a tentative public presentation is planned.

In the meantime, the La Plata Open Space Conservancy and Animas Conservancy are busying themselves with education in an effort to inform landowners that conservation is not a takings and can be beneficial.

“Where we are challenged is in educating people that this can be progress and that there are benefits,” Roser said.








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