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Nickel an acre fee starts on Whidbey

Karen Bishop, right, manager for the Whidbey Island Conservation District, addresses the Island County commissioners Monday in a special meeting concerning a new 5-cent per acre assessment.  - Justin Burnett / Whidbey News-Times
Karen Bishop, right, manager for the Whidbey Island Conservation District, addresses the Island County commissioners Monday in a special meeting concerning a new 5-cent per acre assessment.
— image credit: Justin Burnett / Whidbey News-Times

Island County property owners will now be required to pay a 5-cent per acre assessment to help fund conservation programs on Whidbey and Camano islands.

The new fee was approved in a 2-1 vote Monday at a special meeting of the Island County commissioners. It will be charged on top of an existing flat $5 per parcel fee and in the wake of a February state Supreme Court ruling concerning the legality of such special assessments.

"I'm really pleased we're moving forward," said Karen Bishop, manager for the Whidbey Island Conservation District.

Had the board rejected the measure, Bishop said the $5 fee would also have been scrubbed due to the recent court ruling. The district would have lost that dedicated funding source, approximately $175,000 for Whidbey alone, and had to spend the next year working on a new special assessment proposal.

That would have been time organization officials could have spent serving land owners, she said.

"It would have completely disrupted district operations," Bishop said.

The flat per parcel fee was adopted in 2009 to fund natural resource conservation efforts led by the Whidbey Island and Snohomish County conservation districts. The legality of the assessment came into question last month when the state Supreme Court determined that a per acre fee was required as well.

Since the ruling, the board decided not to repeal the $5 per parcel charge and agreed to consider two possible ordinances for tacking on the new 5-cent per acre assessment. One version included a sunset of ten years and the other five years.

Most of those who spoke at Monday's special meeting argued in favor of the new charge, which is expected to generate about $3,500 on Whidbey or $4,400 countywide, and the 10-year version.

Larry Bach from the Island County Water Resource Advisory Committee said shortening the lifespan of the district's programs would be a disservice to the community.

Chris Williams, chairwoman of the Whidbey Island Farm Tour committee, said they benefit a wide demographic of land owners.

"It isn't just farmers who do soil and water conservation," Williams said.

Others weren't so sure.

South Whidbey property rights advocate Rufus Rose said he sees the need for a conservation district but his understanding is that they are geared toward farms and agriculture. He questioned why the fees are also being applied to smaller landowners.

"It just troubles me that this is being applied to almost all parcels," Rose said.

The issue also sparked some debate among the commissioners. While all supported the new assessment, Commissioner Kelly Emerson motioned for the shorter sunset clause citing cost implementation concerns and the flexibility of a shorter commitment.

She said she believed this is an issue that should be decided by voters, not the board, while also making it clear she has reservations about the conservation district and it's efforts.

Emerson quizzed district officials about the organization's role as a voting member of the Salmon Technical Advisory Group, asking how they felt about "possibly contaminating the aquifer" and "possibly destroying the Camano state park" with projects geared toward salmon recovery.

Emerson also called the recent salmon enhancement efforts at Ala Spit a "creation of work" and criticized the district's assessments for their reach and effectiveness.

"It's taking money from all taxpayers to pay for a few rain gardens," Emerson said.

Her comments were hotly contested. Commissioner Angie Homola said she took exception to the claim that the Ala Spit restoration was just an exercise in work. Commissioner Helen Price Johnson said the conservation districts efforts have aided in the growth of agriculture across the county and that farmers markets generate millions of dollars.

"To belittle their efforts to a handful of rain gardens I think does them a great disservice," Price Johnson said.

As for the sunset clause, Price Johnson said Emerson's cost concerns weren't accurate and argued that the longer terms might actually streamline and reduce overhead expenses for the district, along with providing increased certainty for landowners.

"I think the conservation district provides a wonderful non-regulatory resource for our citizens that can augment the limited services our county government can provide," Price Johnson said.

Homola also supported the longer sunset, saying it would provide a larger window to secure grant funding. She also said she appreciated the work of the conservation district and that its partnership with the county is a good example of governments working together to streamline their efforts.

"I look at this as a win win," Homola said.

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