Commissioners to Decide on Conservation Bond

By Beacon Staff

A survey by an independent Oregon pollster shows that the majority of Flathead County residents support a bond of at least $10 million to go toward conservation efforts.

On July 31, Flathead County commissioners will examine the survey’s results and decide whether to put a proposal on the ballot to purchase conservation easements and fund other preservation projects through tax collections.

In the poll, conducted by phone on June 17-18, 64 percent of residents said they would support a bond of $10 million, 61 percent would approve $15 million and 58 percent would vote for $20 million. Bob Moore, a pollster from Portland Ore., oversaw the survey, which drew from a field of 404 likely voters and has an estimated 5 percent margin of error.

With a $10 million bond, a homeowner with a house worth $215,000 would pay $19 per year. High-growth counties such as Lewis and Clark, Missoula, Ravalli and Gallatin already have passed similar bonds.

Flathead County, if such a bond was approved, could use the money to purchase voluntary conservation easements in which the land is left in private ownership, as well as purchase waterfront access and parklands. Other potential options are countywide zoning regulations and the purchasing of conservation agreements by non-governmental entities, though this was the least popular proposition in the survey.

Sixty-nine percent of respondents said they would support conservation agreements under Flathead County governance in an effort to preserve farmland, water quality and open rural land. Only 43 percent were in favor of non-governmental entities purchasing the easements.

Ken Siderius, president of the Flathead Land Trust, said publicly funded conservation easements have been discussed for years. He approached county commissioners in 2003 and 2004, but he said they weren’t enthusiastic. But this time around, Siderius said the commissioners have indicated they will support the bond and he hopes the July 31 commission meeting proves that.

A “rural options” committee was formed to guide and articulate discussion about conservation bonds among both the general public and government officials. The committee consists of a variety of community leaders and residents, including Siderius and members of the county’s parks and weed board and the long range planning task force, which includes the county’s land use committee.

In a statement, Myrt Webb, chairman of the land use committee, said the survey gives important empirical validity to the a conservation bond proposal.

“This survey confirms in a solid, scientific manner what folks have been telling us in public hearings for years,” Webb said. “Clean water, family farms and access to the outdoors are important to the lifestyle and economy of the Flathead and we must protect them as we grow and develop.”

Respondents in the survey cited overdevelopment and overpopulation as the greatest threat to Flathead County’s quality of life. Siderius said quality of life is one of the area’s most vital resources.

“Our economy here is great and the studies have shown that the reason our economy is great is because of the quality of life,” Siderius said. “We feel this is a way to continue that quality of life while not taking away from property rights.”