GVLT and Coalition Move Forward with Citizen Petition to Protect Open Land

We’re excited to share that a coalition of supporters of open land, including the Gallatin Valley Land Trust, Montana Land Reliance, and The Trust for Public Land have decided to pursue a Citizen Petition to place a $20 million Open Lands Bond on the ballot in November 2018 to continue the existing Gallatin County Open Lands Program. After the County Commission did not unanimously agree to put this measure on the ballot at a meeting this summer, we regrouped.  We’ve heard you loud and clear, open land is important to this valley and you’ve entrusted us to fight for it.

A little background. In both 2000 and 2004, Gallatin County taxpayers made a substantial investment. You saw this beautiful place growing and changing and you knew you had to do something to plan for the future. A group of thoughtful citizens created a coalition and held community conversations to research tools to protect open land. The County decided to pursue conservation easements as a tool to protect open land for working farms and ranches, wildlife habitat, and manage growth.  That effort resulted in taxpayers approving two $10 million bonds to purchase conservation easements from willing landowners, giving them an option to help keep the land in agriculture by voluntarily selling their development rights.

It paid off.  For the last 17 years, organizations like the GVLT, Montana Land Reliance (MLR), and The Trust for Public Land (TPL) have worked alongside the county’s landowners to protect over 50,000 acres from future development. Large blocks of agricultural land on some of the best soil in the state will remain intact in perpetuity. Multiple properties have been stitched together to protect important wildlife corridors. And long stretches of rivers have been conserved, protecting the scenic views and water quality we expect from our blue ribbon trout streams.

Your taxpayer dollars have been leveraged at an astonishing rate. Each County dollar has been matched with five from federal, state, and private sources. But the program’s success is stalled. Funding from the last two Open Lands Bonds has been fully allocated, eliminating an option for landowners who are ready and willing to limit development of their property and slowing the progress to protect the county’s open landscape.

With a number of pressing needs in a growing community, we spent the last three months in conversations with leaders and elected officials about timing and options. Based on these conversations, and overwhelming support from community members like you both through a poll and at public hearings, the coalition has decided that a Citizen Petition is critically important at this time. Renewing funding of this program at the $20 million level will allow the County to continue protecting open land and balance development for another 15-20 years.

You’re not alone in your love of open land. County and City Commissioners support this effort. “Our Gallatin County Open Lands Program has been tremendously successful.  It has been a useful tool to manage growth while protecting our valley’s rich agricultural heritage,” says Joe Skinner, Gallatin County Commissioner, in support of the Citizen Petition effort. Bozeman City Commissioner Chris Mehl adds, “Protecting natural lands, our Valley’s high quality of life, and local water quality will benefit Gallatin County residents as we work together to pass an Open Lands Bond.”

This past summer, the land trust partners commissioned an independent poll of community attitudes regarding the Gallatin County Open Lands Program and the need for further open land protection. An overwhelming majority, 70% of the respondents, were in favor of approving a $20 million bond to continue the Gallatin County Open Lands Program. The anticipated cost to pay off the bond is $15.92/ year for every $200,000 of home value.

A petition effort allows citizens to place initiatives on the ballot by proving community support.  It is truly democracy in action. This will not be a small task as a Citizen Petition in Gallatin County requires in-person signatures from 20% of the registered voters, or 15,097 signatures. These signatures will need to be collected in a period of 3 months, once the petition language is approved by the County Attorney’s office.

We’re going to need your help. 

The coalition will be spending considerable resources and time to collect the signatures needed so that County taxpayers can make a decision about the future of the Gallatin County Open Lands Program. We will need volunteers to help collect signatures, attend community events with the petition, submit opinion pieces to local media, and share the message with neighbors and friends. Given the rapid pace of development in the county, and the rapid rate at which open land is being converted into residential and commercial uses, the coalition believes that now is the time to protect the special and scenic parts of this landscape, before it is too late. The coalition members will work hard to ensure that the residents of this county have the opportunity to protect the future of this place with a yes vote for open land in November of 2018. We will work hard on behalf of the many people who support GVLT to protect the open land you love. This is our promise.