Concerns surround farm easement

Officials are looking at how to better protect the publicly-owned Greenbank Farm from development, but it’s a concept that’s easier said than done.

Before their plans materialize, the Port of Coupeville and the Greenbank Farm Management Group need to resolve several legal and monetary issues surrounding a possible conservation easement, where the port would surrender development rights on the Greenbank Farm.

Farm supporters want the easement to provide more protection from development. While the current zoning offers tight restrictions on the farm, some people want the easement as a more permanent way to protect the farm from development.

Jim Patton, executive director of the Port of Coupeville, said some residents are nervous that someone in the future could change the farm’s zoning to allow development to take place.

Pat Powell, director of the Whidbey Camano Land Trust, a Greenbank-based organization that works with property owners to protect land in Island County, said she would be thrilled to see an easement placed on the farm. That would put protections on the farm that the public already thinks are in place.

Powell said the conservation easement would protect the farm with a legally-binding document should things politically change in the future.

“Zoning can be changed but a conservation easement travels with the land,” Powell said, adding it wouldn’t be difficult to change the zoning on the Greenbank Farm.

In 1997, the Greenbank Farm went up for sale and there was talk of a 700-home community on the rural 500 acres. After an outpouring of community support the farm was sold to the Port of Coupeville, Island County, and The Nature Conservancy for $2.8 million.

An immediate issue before the port is whether a public entity such as itself which traditionally emphasizes economic development, can legally surrender development rights to property.

“There’s no precedent for ports to surrender its development rights,” Patton said.

It’s not always easy for a public entity to give away property. The city of Langley, for example, recently tried to give its marina to the Port of South Whidbey, but state officials nixed the deal.

To see if the Port of Coupeville can give up its development rights, port officials and Greenbank Farm Management Group members are asking for an opinion from the state Attorney General’s Office.

Patton said there is precedence for ports to give up those rights in a “value for value” situation where the port would get something in return for the easement.

He said the port will argue that by protecting the surrounding area, the farm would remain a destination for visitors and thus enhance tourism, which is an economic activity.

There isn’t any timeline set yet as to when the port would want to get the opinion from the Attorney General’s office, Patton said.

Another issue that needs resolution surrounds the bonds the port is paying off for the farm purchase.

Patton said any kind of easement would have to make sure it won’t change the value of the property and threaten the status of the bonds. The port is set to pay off the last of the bonds in 2017.

Port officials are meeting with bond attorneys to see how a possible easement would affect the status of the bonds.

If a conservation easement is placed on the Greenbank Farm, the port would figure out how much it would cost to implement and maintain. Those costs would pay for administering the easement. Patton is quick to point out that the port doesn’t have a lot of money. When the fiscal year started, the port only had an $83,000 fund balance.

He said there are three documents which will help protect the land at the Greenbank Farm. One is the master site plan, which is being formed, than there’s the zoning ordinance and then the third would be the conservation easement that officials are trying to place on the farm.

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