From the pages of
Sublette Examiner
Volume 2, Number 48 - February 27, 2003
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

PDR group hears opposition

by Cat Urbigkit

About 25 people arrived at the Sublette County Library in Pinedale Tuesday evening for an informational session on the proposed Purchase of Development Rights program.

The meeting was hosted by the Sublette County PDR Working Group and provided an opportunity for residents to hear presentations supportive of a PDR program. Marty Zeller of Conservation Partners, a Colorado consultant hired by the county for $19,992 to help the working group develop the structure of a county-funded PDR program, presented information at the meeting. The working group is slated to present its proposal at the April 15 Sublette County Commission meeting.

Zeller said PDR programs are nothing new anymore, with 13 or 14 Colorado counties having such programs in place now, many of which are focused on protecting agricultural lands.

PDR "is a concept whereby a working rancher sells some/all of the development rights on his/her ranch in exchange for cash needed to continue operations, enhance the ranch's viability or pass it on to his/her heirs," according to information distributed at the meeting.

The information sheet distributed at the meeting noted that PDRs offer Sublette County an opportunity to invest today's tax revenues from oil and gas development to "reduce scattered residential development that costs more in county services than they produce in tax revenues."

Pinedale's Bob Harrower said he is one who doesn't agree with the proposal.

"We're not against scenic easements or PDRs," Harrower said, but questioned the use of tax money in such a program.

"I think that's what you have to sell to us people who aren't sold on this program ... why it's beneficial to use tax money to do this," Harrower said.

Boulder rancher Jim Bousman said while he couldn't speak for all ranchers, of the ones he has spoken with, "the majority have not embraced it with open arms."

Bousman said it's not because the ranchers are uneducated, or really because of the pros and cons of the "noble idea" of preserving ranchlands, but it is a philosophical view that using county taxpayer money for the program is not a legitimate use of the money.

"The pros and cons don't matter," Bousman said, if he and other ranchers have this basic philosophical view against the program. Bousman said currently, the public benefits from the values such as open space and scenic vistas that ranches offer.

"If you really want to have those values, then support agriculture," Bousman said. Money could be allocated to provide low-interest loans or to help develop permittee-monitoring programs, Bousman said. He also noted many area ranchers are federal land ranchers

"If we lose our right to graze, we lose our business anyway, but we've sold our development rights," Bousman said, if ranchers participated by selling their development rights.

Bousman said, "I believe in the free market and in the end, the dollar will find the answer." He noted that he believes in the right of a rancher to sell his development rights, but it becomes a public issue when tax money is involved.

"It's beyond private when it involves public tax money," Bousman said.

Zeller responded by stating that he would never advise a rancher to sell all his development rights, because "you need to preserve and reserve significant rights."

Zeller said except for the philosophical issue, all of Bousman's concerns could be addressed in a conservation easement.

"You tailor the easement ... to what your needs are," Zeller said. He said that our prime agricultural lands are disappearing at a rapid rate and the PDR program provides an available option to preserve those lands while offering substantial savings to future taxpayers because the cost of community services would be less.

County Assessor Janet L. Montgomery didn't necessarily buy that argument, stating that Zeller's encouraging ranchers to retain some development rights means that, without all the land being protected, dispersed development will occur in the future.

Zeller countered that there is a big difference between a few families and hundreds of families on a certain property.

Montgomery said the group appeared to be putting a lot of emphasis on a University of Wyoming study indicating that for every dollar of tax revenues Sublette County receives, it costs 38 cents to service agricultural lands, compared to $1.24 to service rural residential property. Montgomery said such estimates have been provided in the past, and questioned how they have done in the past, whether the information was accurate.

Montgomery also questioned whether anyone studied actual sales of property containing conservation easements in Sublette County.

Pinedale businessman Dale Hill said he believed Montgomery was asking, "Does the land devalue?"

"Absolutely," Zeller said, but Hill countered, "No."

Hill said, "This smoke-and-mirror thing has got to stop."

Hill said he conducted some research on the issue locally: "That land was not devalued ... you need to do your research ... like I did my research."

Zeller said the land will appreciate over time,

Montgomery urged the group to not use generalities or numbers from other areas, but to "take a hard look at actual sales that have occurred ... and see what the real impact is in Sublette County."

Boulder rancher Walt Bousman asked how much tax money per acre was being contemplated, noting that the PDR group cited an American Farmland Trust study indicating that "336,000 acres of prime ranchland are at risk" in the county.

"How much money are we talking about for that 336,000 acres?" Bousman asked.

If an easement purchase leveraged state and federal money and resulted in a county contribution of $300 per acre, it would take over $100 million to conserve that acreage, Bousman pointed out. (And that's only the county's share, which was calculated to be about one-third of the cost of the easement in the example used at the meeting).

Zeller said, "It is no surprise to me if the ranching community is opposed to this new program," adding that the only way to demonstrate to ranchers if it will work is to try a pilot program.

"But if you can see it, smell it and taste it, you might like it," Zeller said, citing Route County, Colo., ranchers' overwhelming opposition to taxation for a PDR program, but five years later, there is a waiting list of ranchers who would like to be involved in the program.

Hill said, "I'm not against testing the water," adding that the county needs to have its eyes open when it does so.

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