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County could buy lagoon

After eyeing one of Whidbey Island’s largest wetlands for several years, Island County came a big step closer to owning Deer Lagoon this week.

The federal government dropped a wetlands conservation grant totaling $800,000 on the county early in the week, giving proponents of a plan to buy the 379 acres of land for the public good reason to believe the $2.7 million property could be permanently protected from development by the end of the year.

Initiated by Larry Kwarsick, Island County’s former director of public works, just prior to his retirement in 1991, the grant will go toward more than buying land, Kwarsick said this week. It will buy irreplaceable habitat.

“This is the richest bird habitat in the county,” said Kwarsick, who is still involved in the purchase as a representative for the property’s owners, H&H Properties, Langley.

The lagoon has a long history. In 1872, when settlers started building homes on South Whidbey, Deer Lagoon was thought to have covered 1,000 acres of Useless Bay. More than half the lagoon disappeared after island residents diked portions of the area to create more farmland. Much of the remaining habitat is fractured into freshwater wetland with no tidal action.

Even so, a 1986 Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife report concluded that Deer Lagoon was the county’s best bird habitat, Kwarsick said Thursday. A 1989 University of Puget Sound report identified more than 170 bird species on the land

But even with the grant, there is a lot of distance between what H&H Properties is asking and what Island County has to give. H&H has pledged to discount the price of the land to just over $2 million. Kwarsick said more money could come from the Trust for Public lands.

Island County Commissioner Mike Shelton said this week that he believes the county will own the land.

“That’s certainly the appropriate seed money,” he said Wednesday.

During the past five years, public and private money has put a good deal of private property into Island County’s hands. In 1997, the county and the Port of Coupeville purchased the Greenbank Farm and several hundred acres surrounding it, sparing the area from a proposed housing development. Private donors purchased 118 acres of forestland along Saratoga Road last year and dedicated it as a county park. The purchase of Deer Lagoon will take more acreage away from development permanently.

Kwarsick said a public buyout of the lagoon will make some “unique” properties off limits to residential development, which has been heavy around the lagoon’s borders. However, he noted, much of the acreage is too wet to be built upon.

Agencies working with Island County to purchase the land include the Trust for Public Lands, the Unites States Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Whidbey-Camano Land Trust. If the county is successful in purchasing Deer Lagoon, plans are to place the acreage under a permanent land trust conservation easement, which would prevent development.

Kwarsick said the property could one day be the site of a public trail system which would provide limited access to the wetland property.

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