Land trust buys Saratoga Woods

"Whidbey-Camano Land Trust president Cary Peterson (left in foreground) talks with Betty Azar as they walk with Diane Kendy, Ann Linnea, Jayne Johnson, and Gretchen Lawlor through a section of Saratoga woods just acquired by the land trust on option.Matt Johnson / staff photoAfter years of beating down attempts by developers to build subdivisions and a destination resort on 118 acres of Saratoga Road forest land, a group of development opponents finally took the land off the market late last week when they and the Whidbey-Camano Land Trust signed a purchase option.Working together, the Land Trust and members of the group Save the Woods on Saratoga have raised more than $450,000 toward the purchase. The option agreement with landowner Resource Group, Inc. (RGI) will put the land under Land Trust ownership if it can raise another $300,000 to pay the $750,000 sales price.Phil Pearl, a member of the Land Trust, negotiated the deal with RGI. He said Tuesday that working with RGI was a complex and often adversarial process. Because Save the Woods had managed to shoot down two development proposals for the land since 1996, RGI was initially unwilling to negotiate.There was sort of a built-in negativity in the negotiations, Pearl said.Further complicating matters was the fact that RGI was not interested in dealing with an option contract. The company had been burned twice on options by developers who tried to build a housing community in 1995 and a destination resort in 1997. Both proposals failed, largely due to public opposition, new zoning regulations, and legal action undertaken by Save the Woods. Save the Woods also blocked a proposal last year to clearcut the property.Pearl said he was able to convince the company to accept the option and the $750,000 the land trust is offering. The list price for the land was $1.2 million. Pearl made up the difference by finding tax credits for RGI for selling the property for below market value.With the agreement in place, the Land Trust must raise the money it still needs within six months. If not, the deal is off. Diane Kendy, president of Save the Woods, said she has little doubt that the people of South Whidbey will come up with the money.It's a great community to be able to do this, Kendy said.So far, the money has come to the land trust in big chunks. Goosefoot Community Fund, a private nonprofit funded by South Whidbey philanthropist Nancy Nordhoff, pledged $100,000 toward the purchase, while Island County ponied up $52,000 from its wetland mitigation fund. Pearl said the county was already trying to purchase wetlands on the RGI land when he got involved. He convinced the Island County commissioners to add the money to the Land Trust money pool, and to take ownership of the forest land once the sale is final. Pearl said the county is better equipped to handle the day-to-day maintenance of the land.Land trust and Save the Woods members plan to develop the forest into a nature park. Although the plans are preliminary, Kendy said a Saratoga park will include walking, hiking and bicycling trails, a small parking area, and a pedestrian-accessible water overlook. Also planned is a good deal of wildlife restoration work, especially in an area carved out decades ago as a primitive airfield. The two groups have no plans to build any large recreational facilities or ball fields on the land.Although the negotiations and fund raising have been going on for months, Kendy and others involved in the purchase had been silent on the deal until Monday. Kendy said releasing information to the public too soon might have caused the deal to collapse.The groups have until early July to raise another $50,000 for the purchase and until late-September to raise another $250,000. If they fail to raise the entire amount, the land trust is still committed by contract to purchase 48 acres of the land. Kendy said she is sure they will be able to purchase the entire 118 acres. "

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