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Summit County Council delays decision on open space spending criteria amid concerns

Summit Land Conservancy
Summit County officials envision conserving land by buying it outright or buying its development rights in an arrangement known as a conservation easement.

The Summit County Council did not vote on a resolution that would set new rules for acquiring open space with bond money.

Summit County voters approved a $50 million open space bond last year. That money allows the county to buy or conserve land for recreational open space and wildlife mitigation measures.

An Open Space Advisory Committee, or OSAC, formed earlier this year to evaluate potential properties and make recommendations to the county manager.

Tuesday morning, Summit County staff added an item to the agenda for Wednesday’s Summit County Council meeting. That was a resolution laying out new rules OSAC must follow when using any bond money for property purchase or conservation.

By law, agendas must be posted or amended at least 24 hours before a meeting, and the resolution made it onto the agenda as an action item with eight hours to spare.

The resolution sought to establish a mandatory process prohibiting the county from using open space funds for loans such as bridge loans during real estate transactions.

It also stipulated the county must deal directly with property sellers, and financial details such as how much money sellers profit in transactions, would be public.

Another provision requires the seller to have owned the property for at least two years.

But after pushback from the Summit Land Conservancy, which said the new rules could put some conservation efforts at risk, the council did not vote on the resolution.

Summit County Council Chair Chris Robinson told KPCW the goal of the two-year ownership rule was to avoid parties that are QUOTE “gaming the system” by selling quickly at a profit.

“We were trying to avoid a scenario where there’s some flipping going on," Robinson said.

"Where a buyer comes in today — and the example I gave was — pays x for a property, and then approaches us tomorrow and has appraisals that say it’s worth 10x.”

Summit Land Conservancy Executive Director Cheryl Fox said she believes the resolution creates unnecessary hurdles.

“In the real world of land conservation, there are lots of different ways that deals come to the table," Fox said.

"And sometimes you have lots of different partners, and sometimes you have somebody who is selling to somebody else who’s then reselling it again — not flipping it, but just bringing partners to the table.”

Robinson said the council was open to the land conservancy’s concerns, and they may compromise on the two years rule.

Summit County civil attorney David Thomas said the rules would be simply a guidepost. He said three council members could vote to amend the resolution’s requirements anytime they deemed that warranted.

Fox said the conservancy plans to recommend some changes to the resolution ahead of any potential vote next week.

Thursday, the county council announced a special closed session meeting to be held Friday morning. The agenda listed property acquisition as the topic. Closed meetings about property acquisition typically run no more than an hour, however, Friday's meeting is set to last three hours.