San Juan County Land Bank: What’s next? - Salish Current
May 7, 2024
San Juan County Land Bank: What’s next?
Nancy DeVaux

Rough-skinned newts are a common sight at the San Juan County Land Bank’s Mount Grant Preserve, where a trail leads to to Newt Pond. The program is approaching a deadline for renewal by 2026. (Nancy DeVaux / Salish Current © 2024)

May 7, 2024
San Juan County Land Bank: What’s next?
Nancy DeVaux

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Renewal vote looms, strategic plan comments due May 8

San Juan County is the only county in the state that has a county organization that acquires land for conservation. The San Juan County Conservation Land Bank is funded by a 1% real estate tax (REET) paid by the buyers of real estate. 

The program was initiated by local residents working with the Washington State Legislature that passed enabling legislation, followed by the measure being passed by county voters for the first time in 1990. It was designed to sunset after 12 years unless reauthorized by the voters, which has taken place twice. The program expires in 2026. 

The REET is the major funding source for the Conservation Land Bank. The projected revenue from the 1% REET for 2024 is $3.75 million, down from a high of $6.725 million in 2021 due to fewer property sales.

During its 34 years of existence, the county has preserved 5,000 acres on 39 parcels the county owns, and the county has 49 conservation easements with landowners on seven different islands. A robust stewardship program is underway on these lands to maintain healthy forests for wildfire prevention, lease agricultural land to farmers, develop public access and trails, and protect water resources.

The mandate of the program, written into the enabling legislation by the state legislature, is “to preserve in perpetuity areas in the county that have environmental, agricultural, aesthetic, cultural, scientific, historic, scenic or low-intensity recreational value for existing and future generations.” 

The Land Bank is governed by a seven-member commission of volunteers from throughout the islands who are appointed by the county council to four-year terms. This year, the commission developed a strategic plan to guide their work for the next six years and “provide clear guidance to Land Bank leadership and staff as they work to fulfill the Land Bank’s legal mandate.” After six years, or halfway through the next 12-year period, the plan will be revisited and revised as needed. Public comment on the plan is being accepted through May 8.

The people’s plan

The process for developing the strategic plan included not only in-depth interviews with over 60 stakeholders but an online survey on the county’s website responded to by about 600 people, over 90% being full-time residents.

The plan reviews the history of the Land Bank, its vision, mission and core values, its key accomplishments, and sets out five major goals, with priority actions for year one.

The first goal listed is communication: “to build and enhance the community’s understanding of and support for the Land Bank.” 

This goal arises in part from concerns about rumors or untrue statements that have been made about the Land Bank to the community. The last reauthorization effort, in 2011, was approved by a margin of 52.7%, significantly lower than the 73% approval from the previous decade.

One reason for lower support could be due to some vocal opponents including Ron Whalen, a property owner adjacent to the Zylstra Lake Reserve, whose website “Retire The Land Bank” seeks to get 1,999 signatures on a petition to end the REET before 2026. Whalen made a similar attempt to gather signatures in 2020 but never submitted the petitions, presumably because he failed to obtain the sufficient number of signatures.

At the April 19 meeting of the Land Bank Commission, Director Lincoln Bormann gave a PowerPoint presentation of facts to counter misinformation.

Correcting the information

Among the Land Bank properties, the Mount Grant Preserve protects and provides access to 250 acres of diverse forest, woodlands and meadows. Visitors to the ridgetop summit are rewarded with sweeping vistas in all directions; Mount Baker crowns a view to the east. (Nancy DeVaux / Salish Current © 2024)

Bormann said that one rumor is that the Land Bank owns “half the county” when in fact its ownership accounts for 4.5% of the total land area.

Another rumor claims there have been “reckless acquisitions” in which the county has paid too much. Bormann said that since the beginning there have been 76 transactions, of which 68 were purchases and seven were donations of land. The total appraised value of all Land Bank properties is $83.7million, for which the Land Bank paid $50 million, with other partners (grants and agencies) contributing another $33.5million.

Misinformation has circulated on social media regarding taxes and how residents are impacted by “taking land off the tax rolls.” Bormann said 75% of the properties purchased by the Land Bank were already in a reduced taxation program such as designated forest land, agriculture or open space. Bormann said a hypothetical exercise was done adding all the properties now in Land Bank ownership back onto the tax rolls, which would result in a savings of $15 in property taxes on a $750,000 home.

Another tax fact is that the tax rate in San Juan County at $5.47 per $1,000 — the lowest tax rate in the state. Bormann said taxes on similar properties in King County would be close to double what they are in San Juan County.

To the question, how much land acquisition is enough, Bormann responded that the Land Bank will only be capable of adding “a few more percentage points” to the current 4.5% of land holdings. “We are not an all-powerful agency by any means,” he said. “We are a small operation and have the ability to preserve some spectacular places, but it’s very limited.”

Resilience and intention

Bormann noted that “things are dramatically changing in the world [with climate change] and there are more droughts, fires, and severe weather.” He said that protecting the natural environment is key to climate resilience because there could be much more development under existing densities, and that would increase climate change impacts.

The second goal among five in the plan is “Community Engagement — Increase community ownership of and participation in the Land Bank.” Examples of priority actions include involving more volunteers, integrating curriculum into the schools and celebrating preserve openings.

The three other primary goals are:

  • Land Acquisition — Increase conservation to maximize the islands’ resiliency and health. 
  • Organizational/Operational — Cultivate an efficient, equitable, and sustainable organization that leverages staff expertise and community partnerships. 
  • Stewardship — Manage lands with intention and consistency.

A ballot measure to reauthorize the continuation of the REET for another 12 years is expected this year. The county council typically discusses an issue three times before taking action on a resolution such as putting a measure on the ballot.

The council discussed the issue on April 29 with David Weinstein of the Trust for Public Lands (TPL), a national nonprofit “that works to create parks and protect land for people to insure healthful, livable communities for generations to come.” [View the discussion in the meeting video at 15:15.]

Weinstein said that the council had approved a request for technical assistance last September to survey community opinions about land preservation. This survey was paid for in part by local, private donations to TPL and in part donated by TPL.

Miranda Everitt from FM3, a public opinion research firm, presented the results of the survey of 400 voters queried via live telephone interviews and text invitations to participate on-line. Referred to as a “very robust sample” that was random and representative of the voters of San Juan County, the survey looked at general topics in addition to land preservation.

In the survey, 82% of San Juan County voters called out affordable housing as “extremely or very serious.” Lack of reliable ferry service was also a top concern, followed by climate change, loss of working farms, risk of wildfire, drinking water supply and local government prioritizing tourists over residents.

Over half of the respondents said they utilize public lands at least weekly. Three in five voters supported additional funding for public lands in general.

Sorted by island, Lopez showed the strongest support at 71% and San Juan the lowest island, at 60%. The Town of Friday Harbor showed 52% support.

The strongest support came from relative newcomers on the islands, with 71% support from those who have lived in the county five years or less. The lowest support (still a majority of 56%) came from those living on the islands for 30 years or more.

Those living here the least amount of time — and assumed to have purchased property and recently paid into the REET — showed the strongest level of support for the program.

Since REET began, said Bormann, 60% of the funding has come from buyers outside of San Juan County and 70% of the REET has come from sales of over $1 million. The program illustrates how “the problem funds the solution” by having development pressures on the natural environment fund conservation.

When looking at specific language for a potential ballot measure to renew the REET, 62% said they would definitely or probably vote yes; with 33% saying probably or definitely no. “This shows pretty strong support overall,” Everitt said.

“There’s a reason that Land Bank has had a 34-year run,” San Juan Island resident Sandy Buckley said on Facebook. “Because it works.”

— By Nancy DeVaux

[Disclosure: Nancy DeVaux is an enthusiastic supporter of the land bank and intends to support the renewal effort.]

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