Ballot Issue May Influence Future of County’s Natural Heritage
To celebrate 25 years of publishing Whatcom Watch, we will be printing excerpts from 20 years ago. The below excerpts are from the October-November 1996 issue of Whatcom Watch.
Editor’s Note: In 1992, the Whatcom County Council passed the Conservation Futures Levy by a vote of 4-3. In 1995, a different council majority placed the levy on the 1996 general election ballot for an advisory vote. The levy was approved by 57.7 percent of the voters.
by Chris Moench and Jayne Cronlund
November’s ballot will include an advisory vote on the future of Whatcom County’s Conservation Futures Levy. The County Council seeks to measure support for publicly funded conservation of our county’s heritage of open spaces, shorelines, wildlife habitat and parkland.
The ballot title reads: Should Whatcom County continue to levy a tax of no more than 6.25 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation to fund a reserve from which to finance purchases of property or property rights for conservation purposes?
The question identifies several key issues:
1. Should the levy be continued? The levy was originally enacted by the County Council in January 1992. This is a tax we have been paying for four years already.
2. The amount of the levy is 6.25 cents per $1000 valuation. That works out to $6.25 per year on a $100,000 home. Less than the cost of a cheap haircut or 5 gallons of gas. At this rate, the levy generates about $500,000 per year for the fund.
3. The funds finance purchases of property or property rights. Land cannot be acquired with these funds through the coercive regulation of eminent domain. This levy is one way citizens can honor property rights by setting aside funds to pay for the open space benefits we all receive.
4. The levy dollars accumulate in a fund that can only be used to acquire land, or interest in land for conservation purposes. Thus, the funds can only be used to ensure that the present generation leaves a healthy legacy of natural lands to our children and grandchildren. The levy is the only county collected and controlled source of funds directed at purchase of land for conservation.
Through careful and frugal stewardship the county has achieved a great deal with the Conservation Futures funds spent so far. The county acquired such treasures as Squire’s Lake and portions of Chuckanut Mountain at a cost to the county of 50 percent or less than their appraised value.
The first use of the funds resulted in the purchase of 140 acres of forestland on Chuckanut Mountain as a part of a larger land exchange between Washington state, Whatcom County, the city of Bellingham and Trillium Corp. The 140-acre parcel connects parkland within the city of Bellingham to state-owned land including Larrabee State Park and DNR land managed for public park use. The cost of the county’s purchase was $1,108,000, with the county’s Conservation Futures Levy contribution of $554,350 being matched by an equal grant from Washington state.
Most recently, the Conservation Futures’ money assisted in purchasing Squire’s Lake, an 84-acre parcel of forest and lake near the south end of Lake Samish. The county contributed $300,000 toward the $600,000 price. The other half was contributed by private donors through Whatcom Land Trust. The property is currently being developed as a quiet natural park with walking trails. Costs associated with developing and maintaining the park are being provided entirely by private contributions made through the Whatcom County Land Trust.
Natural Heritage Plan
Additional Conservation Futures Levy funds were spent during two years contracting with Whatcom Land Trust to cultivate voluntary commitments to conservation by private owners of lands identified in the Whatcom County Natural Heritage Plan. These funds totaled approximately $50,000 and were instrumental in acquisition of Squire’s Lake, permanent protection of several important properties including a great blue heron rookery by ARCO Corp., tidelands on Birch Bay, an eagle night roost on Kenny Creek and a 25-acre farm on Mission Road. In addition, the funds received under the contract enabled the Whatcom County Land Trust to initiate discussions about conservation with owners of prime open space, wildlife habitat and agricultural land in all part of the county. Many of these discussions are ongoing and may eventually result in donation by the landowners of significant interest in their properties for conservation.
Plans for Future Fund Usage
At this time, the Conservation Futures Fund’s balance is approximately $1,000,000. The Whatcom County Parks Commission has prioritized purchase of land in many parts of the county to create parks that will serve our rapidly growing population in the next century.
Top priority acquisitions include:
1. Lake Whatcom Trail – A trail corridor on Lake Whatcom’s north shore connecting the existing trail with Blue Canyon Road. The trail is the final link in a trail and road system around the entire lake and has been long anticipated by hikers and bicyclists.
2. The Nesset Farm at Saxon in the Nooksack South Fork valley. The 106-acre Nesset Farm includes a fully equipped turn-of-the-century homestead, Douglas fir forest, shoreline on the Nooksack’s south fork and an active salmon spawning stream. The value of the farm will be established by an appraisal, so cost to the Conservation Futures Levy is yet to be determined. The farm is currently owned by a trust established by the Nessets to hold the property until it becomes a public park. Proceeds from the purchase will be held in a trust to provide a long-term source of money for the farm’s maintenance and operations. To complete the park, the farm will be linked to two additional parcels to provide public’s access to almost two miles of river on the South Fork along with a window into farming in the early days of Whatcom County.
The foresight of the above listed actions will only become more evident as our population grows and pressure on our parks and wildlife increases.
As funds from Washing state for these kinds of purchases become more limited, the importance of a local source of public money increases. Your vote to continue the levy is a real way of making a commitment to the quality of the landscape and environment your children and grandchildren will enjoy.
While the ballot is advisory, most likely a negative vote will lead the council to terminate the Conservation Futures Levy.
We citizens in support of the Conservation Futures Levy urge you to vote the levy and to talk with your friends and neighbors about its importance.
Chris Moench is a past president of the Whatcom Land Trust and Jayne Cronlund moved to Whatcom County from Port Townsend in 1996. Both were members of Citizens for the CFL.