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Island County considers hobbling Conservation Futures Fund

Double Bluff, seen here Thursday as the sun set, is preserved in part by Conservation Futures Funds.  - Celeste Erickson / The Record
Double Bluff, seen here Thursday as the sun set, is preserved in part by Conservation Futures Funds.
— image credit: Celeste Erickson / The Record

The Island County commissioners are considering an ordinance Monday that would put new Conservation Futures Fund purchases on hold for one year.

The proposal has raised concerns from program supporters who fear that the measure, which would reduce the levy and prevent new projects, would be a permanent decision and halt the Conservation Futures projects for good.

A public hearing on the ordinance will be held 6:15 p.m. Monday at the Board of County Commissioners Hearing Room.

Commissioner Kelly Emerson said Friday that she supports the proposal.

She said that she has repeatedly asked for a moratorium on new Conservation Futures purchases, and that the ordinance is a compromise she and Johnson reached during the budget process.

During the budget process, Emerson had called the program “out of control.”

Commissioner Jill Johnson said Friday she has received more than 100 emails from concerned citizens accusing her of “attacking” the program and saying, “Don’t get rid of the program.” Several letters to the editor have appeared in the Whidbey News-Times and South Whidbey Record.

Johnson said this is not her intention.

“Where I’m coming from on this is for one year, let’s levy a tax rate that will be applied to a year’s worth of debt service,” Johnson said.

In addition to paying down some of the program’s debt, Johnson would like to use the year to examine the program and decide where the county should go with it in the future.

“When you’re talking about taxpayer dollars it’s good to stop and say, ‘Is it accomplishing what it’s supposed to accomplish?’” Johnson said. “There’s a point at which we have done enough. I don’t want to keep spending money if we have accomplished our goal.”

Johnson said land that has immediate potential for development tends to become a priority for the Conservation Futures program. However, some land needs to be left open to developers, Johnson said.

“We need to balance that program,” Johnson said.

Commissioner Helen Price Johnson has long championed the Conservation Futures program but will likely be out voted.

According to state law, the county can borrow money to purchase “any open space land, farm and agricultural land, and timber land” to control the developmental rights. The private owner may retain the right to continue any existing open space use of the land, and to develop any other open space use, but only under Conservation Futures restrictions defined by the county.

The county issues a tax levy to pay the debt service for the acquired land.

The ordinance proposes reducing the levy from the $679,814 that was collected in 2013, to $439,238 for 2014. It would pay off an entire $327,308 state ecology loan and $111,930 toward a limited tax obligation loan. The levy would also include any additional revenue resulting from new construction.

 

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