Just Vote on It

Plan Jeffco, the citizens' group that launched a pioneering open-space program in 1972, is working on a plan to ask Jefferson County voters to approve a $160 million bond issue for open space that could halt a proposed Nike plant on South Table Mountain. It would be the largest open-space bond issue in Colorado history.

The bonds would be paid off with money already allocated for open space from the county's existing half-cent sales tax. Proponents say such a bond issue would allow the county to buy large tracts of open space before rising real estate prices make the land impossible to acquire.

"We need to buy what's left while it's still available," says Margot Zallen, president of Plan Jeffco. "Because of the high rate of growth, all the open-space lands in Jeffco are in danger of being developed."

Among the land to be sought using the bond issue's proceeds would be most of South Table Mountain, which would scuttle Nike's controversial plan to put a 5,000-employee "campus" atop the mountain, which overlooks Golden ("If the Shoe Fits," March 12).

Even with the bond issue's proceeds, however, open-space advocates would still have to convince landowners to sell to the county.

Thus far, the owners of the 1,400 acres of privately held property on South Table--Golden attorney Leo Bradley and Coors Brewing Company--have resisted offers from the county to buy the property. However, community activists are hoping the landowners can be persuaded to change their minds.

"The landowner always has the final say," says Don Parker, a Golden resident who is organizing opposition to Nike. "I think Coors wants to be a good corporate citizen. One way they can do that is by making their land on South Table available to Open Space."

Coors spokesman Jon Goldman says the company would be willing to listen but has not heard a proposal from Plan Jeffco. He says the company is "listening to the community and sharing that information internally." Bradley was unavailable for comment.

Zallen says her group is now putting together a formal bond-issue proposal, which it expects to offer to the county commissioners later this year. The proposal could be on the ballot as soon as this November, depending on what action the commissioners take.

During the past few years, residents have battled constantly over development proposals in the fast-growing county. The latest uproar has been over Nike's interest in building a corporate complex on top of the mesa, land the open-space program has long coveted. Nike is looking at property in several Western states for the office complex, but company officials have made it clear that the South Table site is their favorite in Colorado.

Plan Jeffco officials say Nike's interest in South Table has energized the backers of their plan. Zallen says Jeffco residents are realizing they must act quickly to save the wide open spaces that give Jefferson County its identity. "We hope to make [the bond issue] large enough to acquire all of the key land that's needed to preserve the character of the county," she says.

Other Front Range counties with open-space sales taxes, including Boulder and Douglas, have also approved bond issues for the acquisition of land. By issuing bonds, the counties can buy large tracts of property immediately and pay for them over ten or twenty years. The Plan Jeffco proposal would be the largest such bond sale ever done for open space in Colorado.

Zallen says her group has already estimated what it considers to be a fair price for the land on South Table, but she declines to disclose that amount. Plan Jeffco, she says, wants to use the bond issue to complete all the land acquisitions the founders of the open-space program envisioned in the 1970s. Besides South Table Mountain, the group is also pushing for the county to buy North Table Mountain, land in Clear Creek Canyon, and parcels that make up the mountain backdrop from the Boulder County line to South Turkey Creek in the southern part of the county.

Plan Jeffco will probably ask the county commissioners to put the issue on the ballot, although the group could place the plan before voters through a petition drive. While the group still hasn't finished formulating its proposal, Commissioner John Stone says he has mixed feelings about the idea of issuing bonds to buy open space.

"By doing that, you can lock in real estate at today's prices," says Stone, but he adds that once the bond-issue money has been spent, all the open-space tax revenue might have to go to pay off the bonds, and the county wouldn't be able to buy additional land. "If a real deal pops up, you might not be able to do it," adds Stone.

Zallen says her group has taken that into account and is fashioning a proposal that will still give the county several million dollars a year in funds that don't have to go toward paying off the bonds.

The county takes in $24 million a year for the open-space program; about $7 million of that goes for open-space acquisitions, another $7 million goes to cities in the county to fund recreational programs, and the balance is spent on maintaining Jeffco's 30,000 acres of land and 150 miles of trails. While Zallen says it's too early for her to comment on the details of Plan Jeffco's proposal, Stone believes the group may advocate shifting at least part of the open-space money that goes to recreation into the land-acquisitions budget.

That may set up a conflict among Jeffco residents, says the commissioner. "It's almost like you've got a line drawn between Plan Jeffco and the soccer moms," he says.

Because the county has bought several large parcels of land recently, most of the open-space acquisitions budget is tied up for the next five years. That frustrates open-space advocates, who see bulldozers chewing up ground all over the county and believe time is working against them as they struggle to preserve the most beautiful parts of Jefferson County.

"We're faced with a situation of wanting to buy a lot of good stuff and not having enough money to do it," says Parker. "I think [the bond issue] can be a big part of the solution."

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