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The Aug. 13 public work session reviewing the results of a poll stemming from the county’s year-long Envision process appears to be leading to an expected result: a November ballot question. Commissioners indicated that based on the results of the poll they will consider moving toward the development of an election ballot to support a combined funding measure for forest health, fire mitigation, water quality, rural landscapes and management of recreation impacts.

“Many communities have taken this step, and we have not,” said Commissioner Greg Felt. “We are considering referring a conservation finance measure to the ballot, but we’re not imposing this on the county … it’s a decision we have to make by next Tuesday. This is a complex approach to conservation finance – it’s not a simple ‘purchase some space and put some trails on it’…(the county has considered) this concept in 2005 or 2006 and again in 2010, when Trust for Public Land did some polling, and the numbers were positive, but not great… In 2017-18, we are urgent around growth.”

Billed as the “People for Chaffee” effort, the night’s presentation described a 0.25 percent sales tax; in practice, the tax would translate to an extra 25 cents per $100 of purchases. If passed, the county sales tax is projected to raise $900,000 per year toward a fund that could be drawn upon to fund conservation projects across the three inter-related areas of concern. That projection takes into account this stark reality: According to Colorado State Demographer Elizabeth Garner, Chaffee County population grew 5.6 percent in just two years from 2015 to 2017 – twice as fast as the state population.”

The poll, conducted by FM3 between July 5 to 12, sampled the opinions of 301 Chaffee County residents, via online, land lines and mobile phones, balancing demographic and political data. The poll did not adjust for variations in income levels.

It revealed two topic areas upper-most in the minds of Chaffee County residents come within a single point of each other in importance. Residents are most concerned about forest health and the risk of wildfire in increasingly at-risk forests, and the need for affordable housing.

“Colorado’s threat from forest fire has increased 400 percent since the 1990s,” said  Central Colorado Conservancy Board President Cindy Williams, who oversaw the Envision effort. “Rural landscapes, working lands and green pastures are part of our quality of life. We’ve lost 30 percent of agricultural lands since the 1980s and we could lose another 30 percent by 2030. We need to support efforts like conservation easements.”

While the majority of the roughly 100 attendees were positive about the need to proceed with financial support for the three inter-related focus areas, the session was not without passionate questions. There were repeated efforts by members of the county’s Housing Policy Advisory Committee and the county’s Transportation Advisory Board to remind those assembled that workforce housing is necessary to sustain continued quality of life, and that multi-modal transportation will be required to support continued economic development.

“The Salida Business Alliance did a survey of business owners and they ranked affordable housing was at the top of their concerns, the Housing Assessment highlighted it. and so does the Housing Policy Advisory Committee, “said HPAC member Paige Judd. “If this ballot measure is the most important one to do right away – what would be the impact on affordable housing in the next couple years?”

“It doesn’t make sense to talk about forest health when the roads leading into them don’t get fixed,” said Dominique Naccarato, executive director of Greater Arkansas River Nature Association and the leader of the Chaffee County Transportation Advisory Board. “GARNA stands to benefit from this. We are the education partner for the public land agencies. But we don’t understand how this would fit into a new county comprehensive plan.”

A few members of the public asked if it might be possible to create ballot language to fund both priority areas. “ I can tell you that to fund sustainable housing and open space, forest health and water quality,  we are going to have to bring money to the table to go after these grants,” said Salida City Council Member Cheryl Brown-Kovacic. “Our county’s special because of forest lands and open space, and unique small businesses. But was there any consideration to bring these together in a community improvement tax, so it wouldn’t be about which one is brought to the public first?”

Commissioners did not react positively to the suggestion. “I’m an affordable housing champion and an environmentalist – it boils down to the ballot-readiness of the initiative,” said Commissioner Keith Baker. “There are only so many times that commissioners can refer a ballot initiative to the voters. This initiative has been discussed for 12 to15 years – it has polled favorably every time it has been asked.

“It’s a pragmatic question … how much prep do we and affordable housing advocates need to do to form a multi-jurisdictional housing authority? We don’t need a ballot to form it; we do need a ballot to fund it … these two are seen as equally important to the public; this initiative and affordable housing are within one percentage point of each other.”

That the ballot question was always intended to cover forest health, water quality and rural landscapes seems clear based on the origins of the poll. Chaffee County Commissioners received assistance from the Trust for Public Lands, which provided 80 percent of the funding for the $25,000 poll by FM3. Seven in 10 of those polled specifically about the need to fund forest health, water quality and rural landscape stewardship said they were in favor of it. While these interrelated areas and affordable housing were seen as equally important challenges, respondents were not asked to compare which of the two challenges – affordable housing or  forest health/water quality/rural landscape stewardship – is more important to them.

“When it came to this bigger picture – I didn’t think to ask it,” said Felt. “I did feel that what we were talking about had been circumscribed already by what was being discussed.  The Envision thing started with water issues – the lens was water.”

“It addresses the basic reasons why people live here,” said Melanie Roth. “These are our most important assets. Without them being protected, why would people want to live here?”

Asked about other critical issues facing county residents including affordable housing, transportation gaps and access to healthcare,  Williams said, “Our vision is we have to do all things in parallel – if you have a fire or a forest health event – the people who get impacted are the same people looking for housing. I call it taking a “Yes, and’ approach. We have to do both. If we fund forest health, and clean water – then how can we make housing move forward?”

Concerns were voice related to the breadth of the inter-related issues that would be included in the ballot language. “It’s complex, not very specific; it’s broad-based. Has there been thought of simplifying of this?” asked one resident, who wanted assurances that the poll results would be made public (Williams said the evening’s presentation and poll results will be made available.)

“I want to find ways to continue to keep housing as a part of this process, and get it into the comprehensive plan and the housing office, “ said HPAC co-chair Kimberly Parker, Democratic party candidate for county commissioner. “What I’m hearing is that we need to use best practices of resilient community planning which incorporate all these things. Is there a way to step back and infuse this with the comp plan to pull this together … re-frame this to look at this more broadly?”

According to the November election timetable, Sept. 7 is the last day for the designated election officials of each political subdivision to certify the ballot order and content (no later than 60 days before the general election.)