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Island County commissioners agree to help retire Trillium debt

Island County commissioners voted 2-1 Monday to approve a request from the Whidbey Camano Land Trust for $310,000 in Conservation Futures funding to retire the debt on Trillium Community Forest.

Commissioners Helen Price Johnson and Angie Homola voted to approve the funding, while Commissioner Kelly Emerson voted against the proposal.

Emerson has previously called for a moratorium on collecting property taxes for the Conservation Futures fund, and has pointed to the large amount of land already in public ownership in Island County.

The Whidbey Camano Land Trust bought the 654-acre Trillium property north of Freeland after a massive community fundraising effort last year.

When the fundraising effort ended just short of the amount needed to buy the property — valued at $4 million — the land trust took $500,000 from its reserve account and completed the purchase of the property by obtaining a $300,000 bridge loan from the Bullitt Foundation.

The nonprofit has been making interest payments on the loan, said Pat Powell, executive director of the land trust, and the foundation would like to see the load paid off within two to four years.

Though the land trust had originally said just $150,000 was needed from the county to cover the loan when the fundraising drive to buy the property was completed, Powell said earlier that the amount of money needed has gone up because some pledges had not materialized.

Powell said the original estimate wasn’t firm, given the nature of fundraising campaigns in their final days.

“Things were going fast and furious at that point and people were making pledges,” she said.

“Pledges are promises,” Powell said. “We always had that dilemma; do we count it or not count it?”

“Most people have been wonderful on their pledges,” she said, adding that some promised donations — including one in the six-figure range — never materialized.

The transfer of $310,000 to the land trust has the support of two of three county commissioners, as well as the committee that ranks projects for receiving Conservation Futures funding.

Larry Kwarsick, Langley’s planning director and the chairman of the Conservation Futures Citizens Advisory Board, previously told the Record that the Trillium property was exactly the type of project that should receive Conservation Futures funding.

He noted widespread public support for preserving the land, and pointed to the significant amount of public money that was donated to save the forested property.

“It is probably the most leveraged purchase of open space that I have ever seen,” he said.

“It embodies so much of what we’re trying to preserve across the county in terms of open space, wildlife corridors, and providing public access to the those facilities,” Kwarsick added.

“The best way for government and citizens to preserve and protect open space is to acquire it, and then provide public access to it,” he said.

The Trillium land acquisition has had its critics, however, including those who claim the county has too much public land in its inventory and not enough money to maintain its existing properties. The Whidbey Island Tea Party has been especially vocal against public money going toward the project.

But Powell said the land trust approached the county at the onset before moving forward with the purchase, and also said the land will be managed much like Putney Woods, which relies on an extensive corps of volunteers for upkeep. The land trust has also set aside $50,000 to help maintain the property.

“It’s not a high-maintenance property,” Powell added. “The trails are already in place.”

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