By Mike McKibbin/NewsBreak Denver
[DOUGLAS COUNTY, COLO.] To avoid costly potential litigation, Douglas County should get rid of about a dozen conservation easements on private land, the county open space advisory committee discussed last week.
The county website explains a conservation easement is a legal document that allows a landowner to voluntarily agree to permanently restrict the use of land to protect natural resources, wildlife habitat, agricultural operations, scenic views or other unique features.
Land trusts such as Douglas Land Conservancy and government agencies can accept, hold and administer conservation easements.
"The question was brought up what happens if some land with a county-held conservation easement is found to be deficient in meeting the easement requirements," said Brian O'Malley of Parker. "If one of the commissioners is a friend of the landowner or it turns out the landowner donated to a commissioner's campaign, that could put the county in a bad position."
"I wonder if the county legal department would have the cahonies to step up and seriously enforce an easement through litigation," said committee emeritus member Mark Weston. "When things go well with these things, there are no problems. But it can get really expensive and confrontational."
O'Malley added groups that handle conservation easements might have contingency funds to handle any litigation resulting from such cases.
County staff members told the committee the county had held around 30 conservation easements and is now down to around a dozen. The county continues to monitor each property annually to ensure they follow easement requirements.
Master plan should not ID properties
The committee is involved in efforts to convince the county commissioners by August to place a measure on the November general election ballot to extend the current 0.17% open space portion of the county's 1% sales tax that is due to end in 2024.
As part of that goal, the committee discussed the need for an updated parks and open space master plan to help educate residents on why voters should approve extending the sales tax. Such plans outline the mission and goals of a program over time.
Weston noted an earlier plan listed thousands of properties the county wanted to protect with easements, but only a few were addressed.
Others said a map that identified desirable properties could alarm landowners when they see their property highlighted.
"I would never consider putting anything out there that identified properties the county might be interested in," said committee member Jim Guerra of Castle Pines. "That's just an invitation to be fleeced price-wise."
"We're getting to the point where we might need buffers between municipalities," O'Malley said. "There are areas of high conservation value, but we're not saying the county should acquire them. Sometimes you have to wait for situations to come up."