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MT counties buying ag land for open space

Counties buy farmland



Gallatin County, one of the fastest growing counties in the state, is also the first Montana county to earmark tax dollars specifically for the purchase of agricultural lands. Now Ravalli County, the state’s fastest growing county, has expressed some interest in doing the same, but is proceeding with baby steps in that direction.

Last November 59 percent of the voters in Gallatin County said yes to an open lands initiative that raised $10 million to buy valuable ag land and protect it from development. Already seven landowners have applied for some of that money to protect their own property.

According to Terry Lonner, treasurer of the Gallatin County Open Lands Board, going from zero to $10 million was a three-year process to educate and convince the public that protecting agricultural land from future development was a good idea. The process culminated in a survey taken last spring to gauge the public’s receptiveness to an open lands bond. “We kind of tested the waters to see if voters were interested in supporting the bond,” says Lonner. “And they were by a pretty big margin.”

In fact, the bond measure received a whopping 80 percent approval from the county’s wealthier residents at Big Sky, and 69 percent approval in the Bozeman precincts.

Next month the 15-member Open Lands Board will review the first seven applicants who wish to protect their land through conservation easements. The board will then make recommendations to the Gallatin County Commissioners, who will hold public hearings before making a final decision.

The administrative costs of establishing a conservation easement, which essentially removes development rights from a piece of property, can run as high as $30,000. The landowner gets a tax break and money up front for voluntarily giving up all future development rights. And while $10 million sounds like a lot of money, it can be spent pretty quickly. The Open Lands Board will look for other sources of money, from either the government or private foundations.

The idea of preserving open space through outright purchase of development rights may be catching on in Ravalli County, where grappling with sprawl and the loss of farmland is a perennial problem.

The Ravalli County Planning Board and the Right to Farm Committee recently held a joint meeting where they heard a presentation from the director of Gallatin County’s Open Lands Board on that county’s bond initiative, and members of both boards are still digesting what they learned from that presentation. Whether a similar plan would go anywhere in a county that has gone in circles over planning for two decades remains to be seen.


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