Larimer County looking to extend Open Spaces sales tax

Bikers, joggers and off roaders alike have enjoyed the trails and wildlife in Larimer County’s open spaces and parks since citizens voted to help preserve the lands in 1995.

On July 2, Zac Wiebe, fund development and special projects coordinator for Larimer County Department of Natural Resources, discussed the process of extending the Help Preserve Open Spaces Initiative, a 1/4 cent sales tax adopted in 1995 that is used to acquire and protect open lands around the county. He was guest speaker at County Commissioner Steve Johnson’s citizen meeting at LaPorte Pizza.

According to Wiebe, Larimer County has so far protected about 33,000 acres of open lands to date, but needs to update its plan and budget in order to proceed.

To do this, Wiebe manages a project called “Our Lands, Our Future” that conducted a study in 2013 which included surveying citizens about how to move forward with recreation, land and water use.

A primary concern heard in the study was the protection and affordability of agricultural lands. In response, Wiebe said the department is considering purchasing more farming land and leasing it back to farmers rather than the farmers buying the land themselves.

The idea was met with much approval from the citizens at the meeting Wednesday, who felt that making farmlands more available to younger farmers would be a positive thing for the county.

“This is an agricultural county, and I’d love to keep it that way,” said Fort Collins resident Lauren Ogden. “I think it’s great.”

Several citizens who were supportive of the initiative had one condition.

“If you can find a way to keep the water rights with the land, I think its a fantastic plan and a step in the right direction,” said Fort Collins resident James Weese.

The discussion turned to the department’s budget, which Wiebe says needs some change.

Currently, only 42 percent of the total revenue from the Help Preserve Open Spaces Initiative goes to the county, while 58 percent goes to cities and towns.

The budget also dictates that 70 percent of this goes to acquiring new lands, 15 percent goes to maintenance, and 15 percent is discretionary. The department is discussing cutting back the budget for buying new lands and spending more money to maintain and renovate current lands so that people can continue to enjoy them.

The last point in the discussion involved what acquiring open spaces would do to property taxes. Several people were concerned that property taxes would be raised.

Wiebe did say that sometimes open spaces can increase the value of properties around it, which may raise taxes, but it would be by a very small margin.

As the meeting wrapped up, Wiebe and Commissioner Johnson were please with the discussion and with the level of support shown by citizens for the acquisition and protection of open lands.

“People are supportive, which is really important because we are going to go to the ballot in November with an open lands tax extension,” Johnson said. “People are very supportive of this place and this county.”

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