Dave Stalheim is our guest writer. He was our County Planning Director until recently.
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This coming Tuesday, the Whatcom County Council is expected to put the finishing touch on huge cutbacks that will affect the future of conservation efforts in Whatcom County for generations to come. I’m talking about the depletion of the voter-approved Conservation Futures Levy.
What is the Conservation Futures Levy?
The Washington State Legislature authorized counties to acquire open space, farm and agricultural land, and timber land for future generations. When the development rights were acquired, they were called “conservation futures,” and were used as a tool for both salmon preservation purposes and agricultural protection. The County was authorized to levy an amount not to exceed 6.25 cents per thousand dollars of assessed valuation.
After two decades of significant growth in Whatcom County, resulting in a loss of open space and agricultural land, the Whatcom County Council requested that the County Executive (Van Zanten) form a citizen group to explore strategies for the preservation of our natural heritage. The County Executive appointed a geographically and philosophically diverse task force of individuals, chaired by Craig Cole.
After a year of meetings, involving the public and landowners, the task force delivered their recommendations on June 19, 1991. Their report was called, ""Preserving a Way of Life": A Natural Heritage Plan for Whatcom County." (Click here for plan—22 mb) The Whatcom County Council quickly passed a Resolution (91-044) endorsing the plan with minor modifications, including that the amount of bonded indebtedness be limited to what can be serviced by the Conservation Futures Levy.
The Whatcom County Council began implementation by passing the Conservation Futures Levy in 1992 (Ord1992-002). The levy rate was set at the statutory level of 6.25 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation. In the first three years, the levy was used to acquire Chuckanut Mountain Recreation Area and Squires Lake Park.
In 1995, following the last “Republican Revolution,” Whatcom County Councilmember Ward Nelson led the effort to repeal the Conservation Futures Levy saying, “people have made known their feelings that property taxation has reached a level that they no longer support.” The ordinance (Ord95-056) was vetoed by Executive Van Zanten, citing the extensive public dialogue and broad support in developing the Natural Heritage Plan.
The Council then decided (Res1995-072) to put the question to voters on whether or not they supported this level of taxation. In the fall election of 1996, voters overwhelmingly approved the conservation effort, with 57.7% supporting the tax.
Through 2001, the fund was used for additional park and open space acquisitions, including Nesset Farm, Overby Farm, Canyon Lake Community Forest, Maple Beach, Stimpson Family Nature Reserve, and Lookout Mountain.
From 2001 through today, the fund has been used to acquire additional park land such as Nugent's Corner Access, Sunnyside Land, Terrell Creek Heron Rookery, Jensen Family Forest Park, Lily Point Marine Reserve, and Point Whitehorn Marine Reserve.
In 2001, the County Council implemented the Purchase of Development Rights program for agricultural lands, tapping into the Conservation Futures fund that had previously been used solely for park purposes. Later that year, the Council passed an ordinance (Ord2001-032) that would dedicate 50% of those funds to the purchase of development rights of farm and agricultural land. With a dedicated funding source, Whatcom County could bond against those funds to protect agricultural land from conversion, similar to the concept used for park land acquisition as recommended by the Natural Heritage Task Force.
The first purchase of development rights in agricultural lands took place in 2004. Since that time, 671 acres of farmland have been put into a farmland conservation easement, ensuring this land will continue in perpetuity to be used for resource production. (Click here for an excellent overview of the PDR program.)
With such broad based, public support for the levy, why has Executive Kremen and the County Council not supported the Conservation Futures Levy?
There are two reasons: county budgets and weak political support from current elected officials for the need to save 100,000 acres of agricultural land.
When revenue does not increase or keep pace with expenditures, as has taken place for years in Whatcom County, a growing deficit begins to occur. Large surpluses in reserve funds are now gone, and the County is faced with drastic expenditure reductions. At the same time, the County Executive has been unwilling to raise property taxes, except, of course, for city residents. Without raising property taxes, one way to balance the budget gap is on the back of conservation.
Equally driving this issue is the weak support from Executive Kremen and the current County Council regarding the preservation of agricultural land. When city and county planning directors jointly recommended to the Growth Management Coordinating Council that all jurisdictions adopt a policy of protecting 100,000 acres of land, Executive Kremen and Sam Crawford sided with the small cities in opposition to this policy.
Although the County Council would later unanimously pass a resolution (Res2009-040) declaring their intent to maintain at least 100,000 acres of agricultural land in Whatcom County, along with the recommendations of the 2007 Rural Land Study by the Agricultural Advisory Committee, Chair Crawford has stated publicly that his vote on this resolution was a mistake.
This concept of acquiring agricultural development rights has consistently been endorsed by conservative and liberal members of our community: the Agricultural Advisory Committee, Purchase of Development Rights Committee, Technical Review Committee, and Whatcom Farm Friends.
While the County budget revenue issues are serious, the lack of appreciation for public input on Conservation Futures funding and the economic sense of keeping those funds is disturbing. Sam Crawford is quoted in the Bellingham Herald as saying that what the money "is acquiring, basically, ...amounts to more expenditures for Whatcom County." Either Crawford doesn't understand, or is misleading the public, in that 15% of the fund can be used for maintenance and operation of any property acquired with these funds.
Acquisition of development rights in farm land reinvests our local tax dollars in our local economy. The farmers who obtain these funds usually reinvest those funds in their farm: building new structures, buying equipment, or perhaps buying additional land. Acquisition of development rights in agricultural land requires no maintenance and operation costs, except for a nominal fee which goes to the Whatcom Land Trust to ensure the terms of the Conservation Easement are being adhered to.
It makes more economic sense to invest our funds in this PDR program than transferring the tax revenue to ongoing County expenses.
Please let the County Executive and County Council know they should: 1) respect the will of voters who overwhelmingly approved the Conservation Futures Levy in 1996, and, 2) that the investment in open space and farmland is good for the economy and future generations as well.