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The Space Race

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Published October 13, 2004 at 3:09 p.m.

With all the hoopla surrounding the upcoming election, widely seen as the most important presidential race in a generation, some Burlington officials are hoping that city residents don't overlook a small ballot item that could have a major impact on the next generation.

Among the issues Burlington voters will be asked to consider is a proposal that would create a citywide "Conservation Legacy Fund." This measure would set aside money to be used exclusively for purchasing undeveloped property and conservation easements on shorelines, wetlands, wooded areas and small neighborhood parcels.

If approved by voters, the Conservation Legacy Fund would also allow the city to leverage dollars from other sources, such as private land trusts, foundations, and state and federal conservation projects. The fund would be financed through a 1-cent property tax increase for every $100 in assessed value. For example, if a property has an assessed value of $200,000, this measure would increase the owner's property tax bill by $20 a year. According to its proponents, the measure would generate an estimated $180,000 in annual income, which would be used exclusively for open-space preservation.

The Conservation Legacy Fund is hardly a new concept in Vermont. In Chittenden County alone, many other towns have set up conservation funds, including Bolton, Hinesburg, Charlotte, Shelburne, Williston, Westford, Huntington and South Burlington.

Although the ballot measure was approved by an overwhelming majority of the Burlington City Council, not everyone supports it -- yet. Ellie Blais (Ward 7) and Kevin Curley (Ward 4) voted against. Curley says he likes the concept of open-space preservation in theory, but takes issue with the wording of this specific measure. He points out that the proposal has generated almost no public debate and thus could get lost amid other, more high-profile issues in November. He would prefer to see this one deferred until Town Meeting Day in March, which he says is a more appropriate time for debating local tax issues. "There are people who will actually go out and vote against money issues in November solely based on the fact that they're in November," Curley says. "The way we're going about it just isn't right. I think they're rolling the dice by putting it out there in November."

Curley is also concerned that the initiative, as currently written, doesn't create a separate line item on city residents' tax bill. As a result, the money raised by this measure would go directly into the city's general obligation fund, which leaves a future mayor or city council the option of spending the money for something other than open-space conservation. "Not that that's going to happen, but I would rather go to the voters and say, 'It's cast in stone. This is what it's going to be used for.'"

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