Coupeville port floundering on a big chunk of dry land

A champion of preservation, the Port of Coupeville bought the endangered Greenbank Farm in 1997. Now, as in a Western-movie shootout, it’s trying not to “buy the farm.” “In a nutshell, the port bit off more than it could chew, and it’s been chewing on it ever since,” said Jim Patton, the port’s executive director.

A champion of preservation, the Port of Coupeville bought the endangered Greenbank Farm in 1997.

Now, as in a Western-movie shootout, it’s trying not to “buy the farm.”

“In a nutshell, the port bit off more than it could chew, and it’s been chewing on it ever since,” said Jim Patton, the port’s executive director.

Or, as he told port commissioners in a March memorandum urging a levy-increase ballot measure: “The operational reserves of the port are exhausted.”

So on Nov. 4, the port is asking voters in its district to approve an increase in the property-tax levy to raise money to meet its obligations and still do needed maintenance.

It’s seeking an additional 6 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation for nine years. The current levy is 15 cents per $1,000.

The added amount would increase the tax on a $300,000 property by $18 per year, Patton said.

If approved, the measure would provide the port with an additional $150,000 a year, enough to meet it’s Greenbank Farm obligations through 2017.

“If the levy fails, we’ll just keep struggling along,” Patton said, paying the farm bills out of available income and deferring badly-needed maintenance.

Failure of the levy would also curtail the port’s ability to obtain state and local grants, which require matching funds. Grants are key to the port’s long-range plans to upgrade all of its holdings by 2026, Patton said.

“We have no other sources of revenue,” he said. “We can’t take out a loan. We’re already obligated 110 percent.”

The port district was established in 1967, and includes the area that corresponds with the Central Whidbey School District. It extends from just north of Coupeville to just north of Freeland.

The port owns and operates Coupeville’s historic wharf, its marina and a small office building in town, and is paying off $1.3 million in bonds for the next nine years for 151 acres of Greenbank Farm and all its buildings.

Revenues from its Coupeville property plus the current levy would allow the port to meet all other obligations except the farm, Patton said.

He said neither the farm nor any part of it can be sold, because it’s tied contractually to a larger package of bonds acquired when the entire 522 acres of the farm property was purchased jointly by the port, Island County and Nature Conservatory.

In any case, selling the farm would go against the reason for buying it — to save it from development, Patton said.

“The port commissioners are imbued with the idea of protecting the farm,” he said.

The farm’s annual obligation for the port is $100,000 a year for bond payments, and nearly $50,000 more to the nonprofit Greenbank Farm Management Group, which runs the operation.

All revenue produced by the farm, and all contributions it receives, go back to the group to keep the farm going. All of the group’s personnel are volunteers, Patton said.

Established as a dairy operation in 1904, Greenbank Farm eventually became the largest loganberry farm in the United States. Its annual Loganberry Festival is an established tourist attraction.

In the 1990s, the 522-acre farm was bought by Chateau Ste. Michelle winery, which unexpectedly put it up for sale in 1995.

Concerned about development of the pastoral property, the community scrambled to convince Island County, the Nature Conservancy and the port to step in.

Patton said that, in hindsight, the port should have requested a levy amount then that would meet its future obligations for the farm.

At the time, however, the port had more than $400,000 in reserve, and commissioners decided not to seek additional revenue.

But thanks to a major renovation of the farm buildings begun in 2002 and a water-system replacement completed in 2005, along with general maintenance on all port property and the increased cost of materials and labor, the port’s well has run dry, Patton said. The port has long-range plans to improve all its properties by 2026, if it can restore its reserve fund and get matching grants.

Today, the farm operates a wine shop featuring the Whidbey Island Greenbank Farm private label Loganberry Wine and specialty products. It hosts community events and farmers markets featuring local produce, crafts, art, plants and food.

Future plans include agricultural and environmental learning centers at the farm, and a year-round farmers market and commercial kitchen.

Patton said if the levy is approved, he expects the farm to be self-sustaining by 2017, making another levy request unnecessary.

Jerry Mercer of Greenbank supports the levy increase.

A Greenbank property owner since 1967 and a resident since 1999, he has been a volunteer at the farm for the past 10 years and is the author of the book, “One Hundred Years at Greenbank.”

“It seems simple to me,” Mercer said. “The community didn’t want to see residential development of the farm. If the citizens still want to buy the farm, they have to pay for it.”

“I can see the possibility of many opportunities opening up for the farm and for the local community,” he added. “But it will take time and dedication.”

Thomas Strang, of Coupeville, is against the levy increase.

A retired Navy master chief and former member of the Coupeville Chamber of Commerce, Strang said that in these economic times, only money requests for health and welfare should be put before voters.

He said he’s all for the farm, if it can become self-sustaining. He also suggests moving the Island County Fair to the farm, where it would be more central to everyone on Whidbey, and accessible by boat from Camano Island.

“I don’t think this is the time to raise taxes on people with no guarantee of anything changing,” Strang said. “This basically just continues what has gone before.”

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