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Senate approves Whidbey land transfers

Whidbey Islanders working to preserve forest land received better news than expected in a capital budget passed by the state Senate last week.

The Senate set aside about $71 million for the Trust Land Transfer Program, or TLT, Friday, almost $9 million of which could go to purchase nine pieces Department of Natural Resources land on Whidbey Island. If the budget is approved by the state House of Representatives and Gov. Christine Gregoire, the state will pay the DNR for the land, then will transfer ownership of up to 420 acres to Island County and other public agencies.

The TLT program allows the Legislature to give lands once used for timber harvests that benefit state schools to local or state government for protection as parks, open space and wildlife habitat. With the money from the legislature, the DNR can choose to fund school construction, or purchase property with valuable timber or other resources.

Pat Powell, executive director Whidbey Camano Land Trust, said her organization has been spearheading a months-long letter writing and phone campaign directed at legislators. The campaign has paid dividends, since the Senate added three new Whidbey Island waterfront properties to the transfer list in releasing its capital budget.

If the lands are not transferred for public control, the DNR may have another plan for all of the land to raise money for school construction.

“They are all on a future disposal list and will eventually be sold at auction for development,” Powell said.

She said the small size of the properties make it uneconomical to use them for timber harvesting. None of the Whidbey Island properties on the transfer list are much larger than 200 acres.

Even with the Senate budget finished, Powell said Whidbey islanders need to stay active. The House is expected to publish its capital budget today or Thursday, allowing just a little more time for citizens to put pressure on legislators. A final decision on the fate of the trust lands is expected by July 1, when Gov. Gregoire might approve the budget.

If all the Whidbey lands are transferred, Island County will assume control of eight of the them. Only one of those eight properties, a waterfront piece of land at Strawberry Point, lies north of Greenbank. The remainder are on South Whidbey.

The ninth parcel of land, which is located in the upper Maxwelton Valley, will become part of the South Whidbey Parks and Recreation District. Art Burke, the district’s director, said the district will only do minimal work at the land if it is transferred, including building a parking lot and doing trail maintenance.

Most of the land that could go to the park lies on the east side of Highway 525, about a mile east of the Highway 525 and Maxwelton Road.

But Burke and other parks officials know the TLT lands must still pass over a couple hurdles before anyone can make definite plans. In the case of the parks district, the park’s board of commissioners did not include money in its 2005 budget for work on the new property.

Despite the potential problems, Burke said he remains hopeful the transfer occurs.

“We saw it as a great natural connection,” he said.

County officials are also cautious about moving forward with plans for the land, although they were pleased to hear of the Senate’s action.

“I think its good news,” said Mike Shelton, an Island County Commissioner.

Shelton also said he believes public property in Island County can be better managed locally than at the state level.

The county has no plans as to what to do with the land it may acquire from the state. Shelton said these decisions may be left, in part, to citizens groups.

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