Republican commissioners push new criteria for Island County futures fund

Island County’s two Republican commissioners want the economic potential of a property to be considered when approving or denying a Conservation Futures application.

While the policy shift would be subtle if approved, it would be the first time the board will diverge from a set of largely environmental criteria.

“What I’m saying is I’m not comfortable with the criteria as it is,” said Commissioner Jill Johnson, a Republican, at a Wednesday work session. “I’ve inherited this criteria… I feel like if we’re going to continue to award funding, that criteria needs to reflect the values of the board.”

The purpose of the state program is to provide “a useful tool for counties to preserve lands of public interest for future generations,” according to the RCW.

Commissioner Rick Hannold, a Republican who ran on an economic growth platform last year, agreed that the selection criteria for the program needs to make sure protections are not limiting the county’s commercial growth.

“I don’t want to deter anyone from applying… but I would like to see where the economic benefit is weighed,” Hannold said. “Part of the county’s problem is most of its funding is dependent on recreation and tourism and the military. We’ve got all our eggs in one basket.”

Hannold called the current criteria “just too broad,” adding that it needs to address other concerns and provide “opportunity for a more diverse job market.”

Commissioner Helen Price Johnson disagreed, saying the new criteria would be contrary to the program’s intent.

“It’s a Conservation Futures fund that is created by state law to conserve open space,” Price Johnson said. “That is its purpose.”

As part of the Conservation Futures application, the review board assigns points to the proposed property based on its alignment with state and local priorities.

Johnson proposed new language that would take away points for properties with “unique economic opportunity” or that come with “noted community controversy.”

Extra points would also be given for “land that protects existing or future industry,” Johnson said.

While a good deal of consensus was reached, Price Johnson said she was concerned about the wording of the new criteria.

“I think we’re talking about the same thing, we’re just coming at it from two different sides,” Price Johnson said. “I think it’s arbitrary and odd to be saying that you’re going to apply and then we’re gonna tell you that it’s controversial or it’s a unique economic activity.”

Over the last few months the Island County Board of Commissioners have discussed what the priorities of the Conservation Futures program should be. Counties are required to periodically review and update the application criteria in keeping with board priorities.

This review has not been done for more than 10 years, according to Elaine Marlow, director of the county’s general services department.

State law provides for this type of discussion and revision, Marlow said.

The RCW reads, “the county must determine if the rights or interests in real property acquired with these funds would reduce the capacity of land suitable for development necessary to accommodate the allocated housing and employment growth.”

Steve Erickson, with the Whidbey Environmental Action Network, said the commissioners are taking the review process too far and may be running afoul of state law.

Erickson said he believes the board is confusing the purpose of the Conservation Futures program with that of other programs like the Comprehensive Plan and Growth Management Act.

“It’s for the conservation of land,” said Erickson, who attended Wednesday’s meeting. “It’s a completely different thing.”

Pat Powell, director of the Whidbey Camano Land Trust, said she believes the new criteria will help the county hone in on the most ideal properties.

“We need smart development and smarter conservation,” Powell said Thursday. “I think the proposals will stand on their merit. This is really looking at the full picture.”