Almost two dozen people told the Gallatin County Commission on Tuesday that they want to see a vote this June on a mill levy that would raise taxes to fund an open space program.

The commissioners unanimously passed a resolution that recommends a mill levy go on the June primary ballot to fund the county’s open space program and pay for work at the Gallatin County Regional Park. The commission will hold a final vote on the ballot language at its meeting next week.

The proposal is for a 15-year levy of 4.5 mills — which comes to about $1.29 million by current mill values. The resolution said owners of a $100,000 home would see an annual tax increase of $6.08 and owners of a $200,000 home would see an increase of $12.15. Commissioner Don Seifert said the levy is estimated to bring in about $20 million over its term.

Most of the money would go into the Gallatin County Open Lands Program, which helps finance conservation easements around the valley. More than 20 people spoke in support of the measure at a public hearing Tuesday, all of them extolling the value of the open space program.

“This program has protected over 50,000 acres,” said EJ Porth, a spokeswoman for the Gallatin Valley Land Trust, one of the groups that has been lobbying for open space funding. “It’s working and there’s more to be done.”

Two people spoke in opposition, raising concerns about increasing taxes and rising land costs.

“What you’re going to do is set a premium on the land that is not going to be developed and make it more expensive,” said Timothy Adams, a resident of the valley who said property costs are forcing him to move elsewhere.

The open lands program began in the early 2000s, with two separate voter-approved bonds totaling $20 million. That money ran out last year.

Land trust groups pushed the commission to put a bond on the November ballot, but the commission declined. The groups started a citizen petition to force a vote this November, but they eventually shifted focus toward getting a mill levy on the June primary ballot.

A levy finances a program differently than a bond and is preferred by all three county commissioners. A levy also doesn’t require a minimum level of voter turnout for passage, which makes it more likely to pass during an off-year primary.

Supporters of the program told the commission Tuesday that easements help preserve wildlife and water quality. They also argued that tax break landowners see from conservation easements keeps farmers and ranchers in business rather than forcing them to sell to developers to make ends meet.

“The open lands bond has been extremely successful in keeping ag families on the land,” said Don Vaniman, a longtime ranch broker.

Adams referred to supporters of the initiative as a “special interest group.” The other opponent, Bozeman resident Marjorie Black, said she supports the open space program but opposes “that it is being funded by increased taxes.”

“Over time, these property taxes increase to an unacceptable level,” Black said.

Some supporters said the levy should be thought of as an investment, not a tax increase. Mike Harris, the county’s conservation and parks director, said the levy would be “an investment in our infrastructure.”

Michael Wright can be reached at or at 582-2638. Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.

Michael Wright covers the environment and wildlife issues for the Chronicle.

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