Island County approves $1 million to conserve Fakkema Farm

Much of the Fakkema Farm, 377 acres of forest and high-grade farmland on north Whidbey Island, could be preserved through up to $1 million in Conservation Futures Fund easements under an enthusiastic, unanimous vote Monday by the Board of Island County Commissioners.

Whether the property remains inviolate depends on whether its owners, brothers Hap and Richard Fakkema, decide to accept the money in exchange for giving up timbering and intensive-development rights to part of the land.

The brothers have filed for a logging permit.

“It’s still up to them,” said Whidbey Camano Land Trust Executive Director Pat Powell after the vote. The Land Trust led the effort to conserve the farm, which stretches from Oak Harbor’s city limits west to Swan Lake.

Hap did not return a call seeking comment. Richard couldn’t be reached for comment.

That obstacle didn’t stop the commissioners from celebrating their vote.

“For me, this is one of those moments that makes being a county commissioner worthwhile,” Jill Johnson said.

“This hits all the marks for an ideal conservation project,” Helen Price Johnson added.

The easement will protect about 300 acres.

Even if the Fakkemas accept the deal, a few acres — the number and location yet to be determined — will be excluded from conservation for low-density development. The exact amount the Conservation Futures Fund will expend toward the easement depends on how many acres are excluded.

An additional $3 million toward the easement is expected to come from the Navy and the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Half the conservation futures funding will be paid this year and the other half in 2016.

In total, the easement could be worth up to $3.5 million to the brothers.

Fakkema Farm is “the keystone property to protect on north Whidbey Island,” the Land Trust wrote in a detailed document. The land is “extremely important” for protecting both surface and groundwater resources.

Medium- to large-scale development there, or clearing the forest, would “severely impact” the farm’s ability to filter and improve surface-water quality as it flows into adjacent Swan Lake, according to the Land Trust.

The forest is the largest expanse under single, private ownership in the vicinity, and the property as a whole is “one of the island’s largest and most important farmland holdings, a vital wildlife corridor both east to west and north to south,” the Land Trust wrote.

It is, in short, “a precious gold mine,” said former county commissioner Angie Homola during a recent visit to the property.

The easement allows for a trail stretching along the property’s entire northern boundary, from western Oak Harbor to West Beach Road, though the trail’s creation has not been funded. The easement precludes logging the property and building as many as 63 home sites, both of which the Land Trust said are likely to occur if the Fakkemas do not accept the easement.

The Fakkema brothers have clearly not abandoned the idea of logging the property. On Sept. 21, their engineering firm asked the county in a letter to grant them an indefinite extension on furnishing details about their July 31 logging-permit application.

The extension, they said, would give them time to have their land appraised — a necessary step before accepting the conservation easement — and “would allow [them] to make a more informed decision on how to move forward with this application.”

Former Planning Director Dave Wechner on Sept. 23, by email, approved an extension of indefinite length, said Public Works Development Coordinator Bill Poss.

The commissioners on Monday also approved three other Conservation Futures Funds acquisitions or projects:

— A Land Trust-backed bid for $165,000 toward protecting from development 30 acres of productive farmland along Lone Lake’s south shoreline. The properties to be purchased make up an important north-south corridor between Lone Lake and Deer Lagoon, the Land Trust said.

— Island County Parks and Recreation Department’s bid for $85,000 to protect 4.8 acres adjacent to the Island County Parks property of Camano Ridge, on Camano Island. This is known as the Dillon property.

— A request by the county’s noxious weed control board for $37,900 to suppress weeds in 2016 and 2017 at Camano Island’s Iverson Preserve. Weeds to be controlled on the property, which was bought in 1999 with Conservation Futures Fund money and thus must be maintained in the same manner, include Scotch broom, Canadian thistle, bull thistle and poison hemlock.

The commissioners postponed until Dec. 9 further discussion on the Land Trust’s bid for $30,000 toward keeping open for agricultural and open-space use two properties, totaling 56 acres, on the north side of Dugualla Lake, northeast of Oak Harbor.

The land includes or is adjacent to working farmland, a freshwater lake and critically important habitat.

The Navy may contribute toward the purchase because it wants to remove development rights to the area, which lies just east of a major runway at Ault Field.

During a public hearing Nov. 10, five members of the public commented on the projects, two of them urging no funding for the Dugualla Lake acquisition.