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Farm Exchange in Ebey’s Reserve pains Engle family

Bob Engle, fifth-generation farmer, is disappointed that the heart of his family’s Central Whidbey farm will change hands next year.  - Nathan Whalen/Whidbey News-Times
Bob Engle, fifth-generation farmer, is disappointed that the heart of his family’s Central Whidbey farm will change hands next year.
— image credit: Nathan Whalen/Whidbey News-Times

A proposed land swap on Central Whidbey is causing feelings of relief and disappointment.

The relief comes from officials in Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve, who are seeing a prominent Central Whidbey farm move back into private ownership.

The disappointment concerns one of Whidbey’s pioneer families, which won’t have an opportunity to purchase the heart of their longtime farm.

In a complicated deal with the National Park Service, Penn Cove Farms will take over approximately 300 acres of farmland that had been part of the longtime farm operated by the Engle family, which has farmed on Central Whidbey Island since the 1850s. Instead of paying cash, the owners of Penn Cove Farm, located on the North end of the Reserve, are offering conservation easements on their 137-acre operation.

“The National Park Service properties will go back into private ownership with conservation easements on those lands to protect them as working farms,” said Mark Preiss, manager of Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve. He said the National Park Service will retain conservation easements on Penn Cove Farms.

The National Park Service acquired 300 acres, comprising five parcels, of farmland in 2000 that was owned and operated by the Engle family. The farmland includes dairy farm properties and three buildings that are on the National Register of Historic Places: the Rockwell House, the Reuble Barn and the Gillespie House.

Preiss said the park service acquired the land because the dairy farm had entered bankruptcy and there were concerns the property would be sold and developed.

The current land deal, known as the Farm Exchange, has left some hard feelings for the family that spent more than a century living and working on the land.

“I’m upset that the Park Service didn’t try harder to work with us,” farmer Bob Engle said. “It’s really taken an emotional toll on my family.” He noted his dad and his uncle grew up in the house that is included in the Farm Exchange properties.

He had hoped his family would have at least had the opportunity to buy the farm back from the National Park Service. Unfortunately, that opportunity never materialized.

Preiss said he was disappointed the Engle family didn’t submit a proposal to participate in the Farm Exchange. In regard to selling the land back to the Engles, the National Park Service has to follow an open and competitive process whenever it sells property. He hopes something can be worked out between the new owners so the Engles can maintain their farming tradition.

“Clearly it’s our hope the Engles will continue to find a way to farm,” Preiss said.

The Engle family farms about 1,400 acres of land throughout Central Whidbey Island. The family has leased farmland from the park service for more than 10 years. However, the 300 acres included in the Farm Exchange also contains all of his facilities and buildings needed for his operation.

Engle said it would be expensive to construct new buildings for his farm. He is also wary of what could be a lengthy approval process because of the unified design guidelines recently adopted by Island County, the town of Coupeville and the Trust Board of Ebey’s Landing. Those guidelines apply to properties located within the confines of the 17,000-acre Reserve.

The National Park Service has been trying for years to transfer the Central Whidbey farmland back into private ownership. According to the Reserve’s 2006 General Management Plan and Environmental Impact Statement, the farm properties should be exchanged back into private hands with conservation easements limiting development to ensure the land remains in agriculture use.

Preiss said the exchange served as a way to ensure the resources used to move the property back into private ownership benefited the Reserve. If the National Park Service had sold the property, then the purchase money would have gone into the federal treasury.

The National Park Service Farm Exchange sought farmers who would be willing to give up the development rights on their property in order to take ownership of the 300 acres.

In all, nine entities on Central Whidbey Island submitted proposals for parts or all of the five parcels considered in the farm exchange. In addition to Penn Cove Farms, the Bishop Estate, Ebey Road Farm, Thomas, M. Irene and Stephen Eggerman, Fran Einterz and Joyce Peterson, Ron and Shelley Muzzall, the Pickard Family LLC, Steve Byler and Arnold Monroe Penn Cove Cooperating Landowners submitted proposals.

An advisory panel, composed of park service personnel along with people with agriculture or historic preservation backgrounds, evaluated and scored the potential applications before settling on Penn Cove Farms.

Preiss said Penn Cove Farms’ plan to return the farm to a working dairy made the Hilborn family’s proposal the best of the applications.

Despite being chosen to participate in the farm exchange, it will be months before a deal is complete. Preiss said an appraisal of all the properties needs to be completed and the easements have to be negotiated.

He said the exchange has to ensure the National Park Service gets an equal value for the farm property. There is a size difference in the properties being considered in the proposal. The National Park Service farmland is 300 acres while Penn Cove Farms is 127 acres. Preiss said he hopes the equal value can be achieved as the details of the conservation easement are worked out.

The permit allowing farming to take place on National Park Service land expires in March 2012. Preiss said he hopes the conservation easements could be finalized by then.

Hilborn said he hopes to restore the farm’s dairy operations.

“I think it’s a good opportunity to expand our operation,” Hilborn said. He said he worked with the Engle family for years.

He has leased fields from the family in the past to farm potatoes among other things and he wants to see the family continue their work on the property.

“We want to meet with the Engles and discuss how to structure things,” Hilborn said.

Engle said he would work with Penn Cove Farms, but only if it would lead to a way the family could purchase the property. If not, Engle questions whether his family will keep farming on Whidbey Island and may look at moving elsewhere.

 

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