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Conservation futures equity is at issue

A recent refusal by the Board of Island County Commissioners to use a tax-supported fund to protect land from development in Coupeville has reignited a long-smoldering debate about the distribution of the funds.

Friends of Krueger Farm recently had their application for $250,000 in Conservation Futures funding turned down. The group is trying to purchase the Krueger Farm on the outskirts of Coupeville. The denial came even though the group was the sole applicant for the money this year.

The program was started in 1993 using a 6.25-cent per $1,000 property tax to purchase land for conservation and public access projects.

But, by 1997, the central and southern parts of Whidbey Island had received 84 percent of the funds allocated in the first five years, making for a lopsided disbursement. A large chunk of that went to the purchase of Greenbank Farm, for nearly $2.3 million.

Only slightly more than that, $2.83 million, has gone to all the projects to date on North Whidbey and on Camano Island.

Geographic limits

In 1997, Island County Commissioner Mac McDowell pointed out the inequity and proposed the Conservation Futures ordinance be amended to correct it. It was changed later that year to even geographical inequities in spending the funds.

Shelton, South Whidbey’s commissioner, said at the time he was not in favor of the move, but voted for it because he was concerned voting against it might jeopardize the pending purchase of Greenbank Farm.

Shelton said Friends of Krueger Farm group knew it was not eligible for the funding this year, but went ahead and applied anyway.

“If we open it up to Krueger Farm, we should open it to everyone in district one (Central and South Whidbey),” he said.

A legal notice published by the county in late December and early January specifically stated the funding was only available for applicants from North Whidbey and Camano Island.

Betty Kemp, the county’s General Services Administration director, said a staff member had told a Krueger Farm member that the proposal “wouldn’t fly.”

“They knew they were in district one and not eligible as it stands,” she said.

Kemp, however, felt everyone who wants to should apply, regardless of district.

“The commissioners can uniformly make an exception, so we want to give all an opportunity,” she said. “You can always hope.”

That’s not an exception Shelton would be willing to make. He pointed out that the state’s Growth Management Act is designed to concentrate development in urban areas, such as the town of Coupeville in order to relieve pressure in the rural areas. The 33-acre Krueger Farm parcel is within the Coupeville city limits, but the group wants to keep the town’s rural character intact.

Shelton said the Krueger Farm purchase is also a situation of “willing buyer, willing seller,” and as such does not involve the government.

“I’ve got no dog in that fight,” Shelton said.

Commissioner McDowell stands by his decision to back the equity amendment, because nothing has changed since it was made.

“The biggest thing here is, people expect government to be consistent,” he said. “They need to pass a law and abide by it.”

While he was surprised that there were no applicants from North Whidbey or Camano, he’s not worried about the money sitting in the bank.

“Just because you have the money doesn’t mean you have to spend it,” he said.

Friends of Krueger Farm member Jan Pickard, a lifelong Whidbey Island resident, said the group was disappointed to be eliminated from the funding, and feels a review of the ordinance is in order.

In fact, a review is called for every five years.

Both Shelton and McDowell said they believe they reviewed the ordinance last year in determining how the distribution of funding was going.

Pickard said his group does not agree with that interpretation of the ordinance. She said the group applied for the funding because they felt a lot of people would be let down if it didn’t.

The rejection could open the door to an appeal.

“I very strongly believe we need to have a review of this,” she said.

County records show that projects receiving funding in 2003 were the Davis Slough Heron Rookery and Utsalady Beach on Camano, the Scenic Heights Trailhead in Oak Harbor and the Heller/Crosby Marsh.

While North Whidbey and Camano combined account for 45 percent of the total funds disbursed over the years, the district has received funding for more projects total than the south end. Greenbank Farm is the only Central Whidbey project.

Twelve North Whidbey and Camano projects have been funded, while only five have been funded on South Whidbey. The second largest, after the Greenbank Farm purchase, was the purchase of access property at Double Bluff for $868,438.

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