July 16, 2008

Easement Oversight Takes Shape Ritter Names 5 to Panel to Keep Eye on Any Abuse

By Jerd Smith

Gov. Bill Ritter on Tuesday announced the first appointments to a new oversight commission charged with policing a popular but troubled land conservation program.

Originally approved in 2000, the conservation law grants lucrative state tax credits to private landowners who agree to permanently prohibit development on their properties. But until recently, there was no state oversight.

Under a reform plan approved by lawmakers this year, the new nine- member commission will review transactions, certify the land trusts that grant easements, and investigate any problems with the conservation program.

The program has helped save more than 1 million acres of land from development, but millions of dollars in tax credits have been granted improperly, according to state investigators.

The state is seeking repayment of at least $19 million and Attorney General John Suthers has launched a criminal grand jury investigation of dozens of questionable transactions.

"We're trying to get the abuse out of the program because it has a lot of value. We want it to get back to doing what it was intended to do," said Sen. Jim Isgar, D-Hesperus, a co-sponsor of the legislation that created the commission.

"There were phony land trusts, unscrupulous appraisers, and people who were subdividing land just to get more tax credits. Under this (commission) it will be much more difficult to abuse. We're really hopeful."

Last year, the Colorado Division of Real Estate reviewed a number of transactions and uncovered more than $100 million in suspect tax credits. As a result, licenses were revoked for three real estate appraisers.

The Ritter appointees include: Daniel Pike, Jay Winner, Martha Cochran, Mark Weston and Max Vezzani.

John Swartout, executive director of Great Outdoors Colorado, also will serve on the commission. Other appointments will be made by the Department of Natural Resources and Colorado Agriculture Commissioner John Stulp, as well as the historic preservation community.

How quickly the remaining appointments will be made isn't clear.

Officials had hoped to seat the commission and begin work this month.



* Martha Cochran, executive director of the Aspen Valley Land Trust

* Daniel Pike, president of the land trust Colorado Open Lands

* Max Vezzani, Walsenberg rancher

* Mark Weston, appraiser

* Jay Winner, executive director of the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District

Originally published by Jerd Smith, Rocky Mountain News.

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