Rodney Atherton decided he would divide up parcels of land, have them appraised at what they would be worth fully developed, then act as a broker on the exorbitant tax credit transactions that resulted from such inflated prices. The scheme was uncovered, millions of dollars of lost state dollars were saved, and the state re-wrote the certification requirements for lands converted into easements to follow much stricter guidelines.
The new certification requirements were a stumbling block for Boulder County. The county at the time held easements on at least 800 properties, covering 39,000 acres. Reassessing those properties would take months, even after the county approved its revamped policies on easement certification to comply with state requirements. (To boot, none of the questionable easement deals took place within Boulder County.)
But after the tax credit scare, the newly minted—and strict—requirements brought a new era of confidence and allowed for a wave of easements to be folded into the county’s program. By conserving the Schlagel farm, south of Longmont, the county also got the family to include 294 acres of agricultural land over the county line in Weld as an easement, in 2011. The 137-acre Regnier farm, in the same general vicinity, was protected in 2013. Both efforts were part of a larger attempt to preserve a 1,400-acre swatch of land between Erie and Longmont, some of which is in Weld County.
Despite the very public scandal, then, Boulder County has reaffirmed that one of its main sources of procuring open space is through easements on agricultural land. (Its official stance is that 10-15 of these deals—both through donations and outright buying—should occur every year.) Reasons to participate are sound on the part of the property owner: estate taxes on conserved farms are significantly lower, to incentivize heirs to keep the property, and income and property taxes are similarly decreased.
The strategy is an expensive one, however. The Regnier deal cost the county $2.4 million dollars (not everyone wants to donate), and the Schlagel farm reached a total of $2.5 million, once all stakeholders were included. Still, the tactic is fitting to the government undertaking it. Boulder County’s conservation and sustainability budget for 2014 is over $48 million dollars. By comparison, Weld County has allocated $376,000. (Then again, Weld is the only county in Colorado without any projected long-term debt. Go figure.)