Conservation Bond Headed to Voters

By Beacon Staff

After getting a nod from the county commission, Flathead residents will vote on a $10 million conservation bond this November. It’s a measure other high-growth counties in Montana have used to preserve open space in the face of booming development.

Flathead County commissioners voted unanimously last week to allow the $10 million bond request on the ballot. If approved, Flathead County 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. With a $10 million bond, a homeowner with a house worth $215,000 would pay $19 per year.

Local community groups have discussed publicly funded conservation easements for years, but county commissioners turned down similar bond requests in 2003 and 2004.

“I think the time is right now, though, and I think there’s a sense among the community that we don’t have a lot of time to not do this,” Marilyn Wood, director of the Flathead Land Trust, said. “Part of it is that people have really been affected by these huge developments and the fast rate of growth, and they’re concerned that we’re losing land rapidly.”

A recent telephone survey of about 400 likely voters showed 64 percent of county residents would support a bond of $10 million. Respondents in the survey cited overdevelopment and overpopulation as the greatest threat to Flathead County’s quality of life.

Officials in Gallatin, Ravalli and Missoula counties offer familiar reasons for why their residents have approved similar bonds in the past eight years. Disappearing agricultural and ranch lands. Large-scale developments and booming population numbers. Concern for water quality and wildlife habitat.

In short, their respective counties were losing many of the qualities that made them attractive places to live. But, they say, conservation bonds have helped temper that trend.

“The bond has been instrumental in giving the county the opportunity to protect resources – public access, water quality, and making sure people can continue to ranch and farm and grow timber,” Patrick O’Herren, director of Missoula County Rural Initiatives, said.

Missoula county voters approved a $10 million bond in November 2006. The bond money was divided evenly between urban projects in the city of Missoula and rural projects in the county.

Since then, O’Herren said the county has approved five projects to protect 4,601 acres. The overall price tag for the land is roughly $3.9 million, but conservation groups, government agencies and private citizens ease the financial burden on the county through partnerships, so the county has spent just $558,000 so far.

“Because of those partnerships, the cost to the county taxpayers figures out to about $121 an acre,” O’Herren said. “That’s an astoundingly low sum to keep forests working and help landowners stay on their land, especially considering the location and real estate value of some of these properties.”

With its share of the 2006 bond money, the city of Missoula has approved four projects protecting a little more than 1,000 acres at a cost of $1.5 million, he added.

Progress has been considerably slower in Ravalli County, where voters also approved a $10 million conservation bond during the November 2006 election. The county is still working on its first project.

Vanessa Morrell, rural and natural resource planner for that county’s planning office, said there are numerous reasons for the slow start.

It took just more than a year to put together an open lands board and set its rules and regulations, as well as straighten out the legal and financial processes for the bonds. The ongoing countywide zoning plan has also muddled the process, as landowners have been concerned that new zoning would undercut the value of property and consequently the conservation bond efforts.

“And it’s still relatively untested down here and I think there’s the sense that people are waiting to see how that first one goes,” Morrell added.

Missoula County had a jumpstart on the process as well, O’Herren said, by forming its open bond advisory committee before the bond was passed. “The idea – whether the bond passed or not – was that it was important to have a group to inform the county on issues important to rural residents,” he said. “That outreach accounts for about half of the committee’s mission now, and was part of why we were able to get things up and running quickly.”

Gallatin County has the most established open space bond program in the state; its first $10 million conservation bond was passed in 2000 and voters approved a second in 2004. So far, the county has spent roughly $12 million to put about 32,000 acres in conservation easements.

In every case, county officials speak highly of their open bond programs, saying they provide another option for landowners who need to benefit from the financial value of their land, but don’t want to see it developed. Clear communication, they add, is what has helped them get off the ground, dispel misconceptions and get the maximum benefit for the taxpayer.

“If there was a surprise, it was that we underestimated how valuable these projects were to rural communities,” O’Herren said, “and how much those communities desired a more physical presence in terms of evaluating what’s happening in their areas.”

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