Wood family property to remain open space

Bitter Root Land Trust Executive Director Gavin Ricklefs, left, and cattle rancher Reed Trexler look over the Wood family ranch north of Corvallis in January 2009. The ranch is the first property to be protected by a conservation easement under the county's open lands bond program.

Photo by WILL MOSS/Ravalli Republic

HAMILTON - After almost two full hours of public comment, Scott Kurfman left his seat to celebrate.

The owner of Pfau's Feed was the last of 28 people who stood to offer their opinion Wednesday afternoon on a proposal to give Ravalli County residents an option to end the county's open lands bond program after it spends half the $10 million approved by voters in 2006.

Three people in that crowd said put it to the vote.

The rest told the county commissioners all the different ways they valued the open lands bond program that has preserved more than 4,000 acres of working ranch and farmlands from development.

Kurfman told the commission that he viewed the hearing as a "celebration of just how successful this program has been so far."

"It's been an incredible investment for the most important part of our infrastructure: our land," Kurfman said. "It's been great to have this discussion about it."

The discussion came after Commissioner Ron Stoltz brought up the issue of potentially having another vote on the second $5 million of the bond at a meeting last month.

He told the packed commission room Wednesday that a number of people had told him the bond should be readdressed following the downturn in the economy.

"This is a property tax," Stoltz said. "I said I would do it and now I'm here to listen to what everyone has to say."

They offered plenty.

Bob Popham of Corvallis said that nearly everyone in that meeting room was alike in one way.

"We're all either born or raised here," Popham said. "Why did we move here or never leave? It's because we liked what we saw. This program is all about saving what we saw. We all saw good working lands and open wildlife habitat."

"We didn't see a whole valley filled with houses," he said. "We moved here because of open space. This program allows landowners to willfully give up development rights to preserve what we all moved here for."

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At this point, property with a taxable value of $100,000 is assessed $3.29 a year to pay for the bond.

"If you can find a 50 cent cup of coffee, that's one cup of coffee a month that it costs you to support this program," Popham said. "When people say they can't afford it, I don't understand."

Dan Severson, owner of Valley Drug and Variety in Stevensville, said it was one of the happiest days in his life when the bond passed in 2006 by a 60 percent margin.

"I didn't want to subdivide my place," Severson said. "Back then, it seemed like you had to subdivide to be in the in-crowd. I will tell you now, if you put this on the ballot it will pass by 70 percent this time."

"I've not had a single person tell me that they are opposed to this," he said. "My perception is that it is really appreciated by the public."

That perception was buoyed by all the cards and other expressions of thanks when he finalized a conservation easement on his own family's property.

"That was my next happy moment," Severson said.

Longtime GSK scientist Kent Myers serves on the county's open lands board because he believes in the program.

"When I was recruited to come here 30 years ago ... the reason I came was because of the natural beauty of this place," he said. "This program is making it easier for GSK to continue to recruit people to come here to this valley."

Alan Maki of Corvallis said the program doesn't pit agriculture against development.

Of the estimated 400,000 acres of private land in the valley, the open lands program has preserved 4,000 so far. That's only 1 percent, he said.

"If you want to stop development in the valley, the way to do it is to make it a cesspool," Maki said. "If you want to keep development going, you can have agriculture too. This doesn't have to be one or the other."

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Jan Wisniewski was one of two people to speak against the program.

"When the open lands mill levy passed, money was flowing everywhere," he said. "Times have changed. When I moved here in the '70s and '80s, there were mills and log home places everywhere. They are all gone."

As the county's planning board chair, Wisniewski said it appeared to him that much of the land being protected couldn't be developed anyway.

"If you have this land and you want to stop development, you better prove that it can be developed," he said.

Commissioner J.R. Iman said he believed county voters were looking toward the future when they committed to the program.

"The fact of the matter is that the voters told us to make this a long-term plan," Iman said. "They told us they were willing to commit up to $10 million to make it work."

Commissioner Suzy Foss admitted she had concerns about conservation easements in general, after her husband's experience with some early on.

Over the past couple of years, Foss said she's come to admire the program to the point that her family is now talking seriously about how it might work to preserve their own family ranch.

"Those discussions would have never happened without this program," she said. "It's an option that we never had before. If my father-in-law was alive, he would have embraced it … heck, it's a lot better than one-size-fits-all zoning."

Following parliamentary procedure that does not allow for a negative motion, Iman moved to put the open lands bond on the ballot.

After a moment of silence, it died for a lack of a second.

And then the applause began.

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