Uncertainty clouds farm’s future

Port of Coupeville commissioners are considering an early end to the management contract for Greenbank Farm.

The move comes just one week after Greenbank Farm executive director Laura Blankenship resigned her position in a dispute with Greenbank’s board of directors.

The current agreement between the farm and the port dates back to April 2004 and has eight years left remaining in the contract.

The Greenbank board asked for negotiations on the agreement April 25. Port commissioners agreed with the request during an emergency meeting Monday and have scheduled a meeting on May 10 to continue discussions.

Blankenship resigned April 20.

“Basically, the farm’s board changed over time and the leadership wanted to play a more proactive role in the daily operations and the community,” Blankenship said.

“I was uncomfortable with that,” she said.

On Sunday, more than 70 friends and supporters gathered at Greenbank Farm for a farewell potluck dinner to honor Blankenship’s last day as the farm’s executive director.

“There was a lot of love in that room, frankly,” said Jim Patton, executive director of the port. “The affection was sincere and real.”

Patton was not surprised when Blankenship quit.

“The farm board wanted to rigidly oversee financial accounting and Laura wasn’t happy with that level of micromanagement,” he said.

“She sent a letter stating that unless changes were made, she would be forced to leave. They accepted it.”

Greenbank Farm is a bucolic 522-acre property that sits astride the narrowest part of Whidbey Island and is owned by the Port of Coupeville.

At the port meeting earlier this week, port commissioners questioned Greenbank board president Tom Baenan on his intentions in hiring an interim director.

Baenan said that each board member will assume a more active role in farm operations while negotiations are underway.

“Someone will be on site every day,” he said.

In a later interview, Baenan said Blankenship’s resignation and the board’s request to start negotiations are unrelated.

“At our last meeting, three separate decisions were considered — we accepted an employee’s resignation, considered early termination of the lease as we look to our long-term goals and discussed whether the Wine Shop fits into the farm’s non-profit status,” he said.

Baenan said the board can do a better job planning for the future of Greenbank Farm if the current lease is renegotiated.

Blankenship said she hopes things work out for everyone involved.

“I loved that job, it really was a glorious experience,” she said. “I’m open to whatever opportunities come my way — I’m a working gal with a mortgage, after all.”

Greenbank Farm has been owned by the public for nearly a decade.

Chateau Ste. Michelle’s decision to sell the Greenbank property to developers in 1995 prompted local residents to start a campaign to save the farm, aided by a $1.5 million state grant.

“The goal was to preserve this landmark as a living-history farm, scenic recreation site, and cultural community center,” Blankenship said.

The national non-profit group Trust for Public Land negotiated with Chateau Ste. Michelle to sell 522 acres of the Greenbank Farm two years later to Island County, the Port of Coupeville and The Nature Conservancy for $2.8 million.

The Port of Coupeville owns and is responsible for the farm’s operations.

The Greenbank Farm Management Group was formed as a nonprofit board of directors to preserve the aesthetic character, economic value, and community use of the property.

The management group hired Blankenship as its director and proceeded to renovate and build on the existing structures with a view toward finding businesses that could locate there and become self-sustaining.

Six commercial operations are currently in place. The farm also hosts a variety of annual events to bring visitors to the complex, including the Loganberry Festival in June and the Wine Shop art tour.

Patton said commissioners are anxious to begin negotiations as rapidly as possible.

“Laura was a hands-on administrator,” he said. “That farm rested on Laura’s shoulders and if we aren’t careful it won’t be managed effectively in the future.”

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