Land deal would preserve sensitive Central Whidbey property

Naturalist Mark Sheehan leads a tour on the trail through the old-growth forest that may be acquired by the Whidbey Camano Land Trust.    - Photo courtesy of the Whidbey Camano Land Trust
Naturalist Mark Sheehan leads a tour on the trail through the old-growth forest that may be acquired by the Whidbey Camano Land Trust.
— image credit: Photo courtesy of the Whidbey Camano Land Trust

In an effort to preserve a swath of environmentally sensitive property and secure a future for its popular youth conference center, Seattle Pacific University is looking to sell 50 to 60 acres of woodland, prairie and grassland.

But before that can happen, the Whidbey Camano Land Trust, partnering with the state Department of Natural Resources, is looking to secure millions of dollars in state funding to pay for the proposal.

The two groups seek approximately $2 million through a Washington Wildlife Recreation Program Urban Wildlife Habitat Grant. That would match the $2.3 million already available through a federal Endangered Species Grant.

Pat Powell, executive director of the Whidbey Camano Land Trust, described the property as “incredible” because of the old growth forest, endangered golden paintbrush wildflowers, rare prairie remnant and the scenic vistas that are crammed into the property that is currently part of the Casey Conference Center, which is owned by Seattle Pacific University.

She added that the SPU-owned acreage would be a nice addition to the Admiralty Inlet Natural Area Preserve located north of the Conference Center. The Whidbey Camano Land Trust would own the property and be responsible for managing it while the state Department of Natural Resources would hold a conservation easement.

The Land Trust acquired property several years ago to preserve another remnant of grassland containing golden paintbrush.

Darrell Hines, special assistant to planning at Seattle Pacific University, said the prospective sale is an opportunity to protect property while providing SPU with money to pay for improving existing buildings and expansion to increase the use and financial viability of the conference center.

“If it all works out, it’s a win win,” Hines said.

Expanding the Conference Center has been a goal for Seattle Pacific University for years. However, the economic downturn that started in 2008 prompted officials to delay those plans.

In recent years, the revenue the university has earned from the Casey Conference Center has fallen by approximately 30 percent, according to a letter submitted by SPU to State Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen (D-Camano Island). Because of the reduction, the number of employees has been reduced and the resulting deterioration has played a part in the decrease in guests.

The Casey Conference Center has been a popular locale with youth-oriented activities, but the barracks-style sleeping areas aren’t popular with adult groups.

“We want to get structures that are more comfortable for adults,” Hines said.

He said the improvements to the Casey Conference Center would attract more visitors, which would be a boon to Whidbey Island.

Powell said the Legislature could well vote on the proposal this week, but a lot of work has to take place before a deal is finalized.

The property still has to be appraised and both sides have to negotiate what land will be included in the purchase so it equals the amount of  state and federal dollars available.

If successful, the land transfer could take as long as a year to complete.


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