The fate of Douglas County’s open space fund appears to be in the hands of November voters after two commissioners voiced support for placing it on the ballot July 18.
Commissioners George Teal and Abe Laydon voted in favor of moving forward with the action during a worksession where commissioners heard from municipalities, advocacy groups, recreational organizations and residents.
“To see this level of community support for something that is truly critically important, it’s overwhelming,” Laydon said. “I am with you.”
The Douglas County Open Space Initiative, a citizen committee created to seek commissioners' support for the extension, presented their proposal. Their suggested ballot language would ask voters to approve an extension – not an increase — to the 0.17% sales and use tax, which was first approved in 1994.
The Open Space Sales and Use Tax, which funds acquisitions and maintenance of county open spaces, trails, parks and historic sites, is part of the county’s 1% sales tax. In 2017, the fund was used to purchase Sandstone Ranch, a 2,038-acre property now available to the public for hiking, biking and equestrians.
The tax is currently scheduled to sunset in January 2024. If the proposed ballot language is approved in November, it would be extended until 2044.
The commissioners heard endorsements from the Elbert/Douglas County Horse Council; Real Colorado, a youth soccer organization; real estate agents; Historic Douglas County; Denver Audubon Society; the Highline Canal Conservancy; and the Douglas County Land Conservancy, among others.
Advocates talked about how the extended tax would create benefits for things like trail systems, dog parks, wildlife habitats and land buffers.
Castle Pines, Lone Tree, Castle Rock and Parker have also all expressed support for the question being placed on the ballot.
Under the proposed language, 20% of the tax revenue would go to a shareback for municipalities “located wholly” in Douglas County. The previous tax only provided shareback to municipalities that existed in 1994. That means Lone Tree and Castle Pines would be new beneficiaries of the tax. How much each municipality receives will be based on a population formula.
The largest portion of the tax — 30% — is set to go toward trail and open space acquisitions. The remaining funds will be split between maintenance/capital improvements and the parks fund.
Laydon was supportive of putting the item on the ballot in 2021, but Teal and Thomas voted against it. At the time, both commissioners said they feared the ballot item would fail but they would support the measure this year.
Commissioner Lora Thomas voted against the motion, stating she would like to see the tax extension for 10 years instead of the proposed 20 and she would rather see the question on next year’s ballot.
“The ballot is going to be very crowded, very complicated,” she said. “It’s not that I don’t support it but if we put it on the ballot this year and it fails, it will be even more difficult to get it across the finish line next year.”
A representative from the open space initiative said the timeframe was selected so the county and municipalities could make long-term plans for their open space.
Teal said he supports the project and its 20-year time frame because it could allow for financing large projects. He made a motion to direct county staff to bring the resolution approving the ballot item in a future business meeting following an executive session with their legal team to review the language.
A town hall on the topic is planned for July 27 at 6 p.m.
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