News

Noise zone property, park expansion compete for funds

By JESSIE STENSLAND

Staff reporter

The fate of a 17-acre parcel of land on the north end of Oak Harbor is complicated and depends in part on whether the county’s Conservation Futures fund can be used to purchase commercial property.

To date, the fund has acquired pastoral farmland, wetland habitat, great blue heron breeding grounds and saltwater access.

It’s questionable whether the fund can be used to purchase dryland acreage next to a busy highway and under the flight path of noisy jets. Especially when the same dollars could be used to buy pristine forest land adjacent to Deception Pass State Park.

Local officials, most notably Mayor Patty Cohen, have many balls in the air with the goal of preventing development on the parcel that could encroach on Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, possibly jeopardizing the long-term viability of the base. The parcel is within the newly-identified accident potential zone off the end of a Navy runway.

Cohen recently returned from an Association of Defense Communities conference in Washington, D.C. that reinforced her belief that the city needs to make every possible effort to protect and support the base.

“We need to stay on top of it,” she said. “There is every indication from the Pentagon that there will be continued BRAC exercises,” referring to periodic “Base Realignment And Closure” rounds in Congress.

The city is in the process of creating new zoning to restrict the type of development that would bring a lot of people to the property, risking a major safety hazard in the event of an aircraft crash. The City Council will discuss the potential zoning at the Tuesday, March 21 meeting.

At the same time, Mayor Cohen is trying to put together a partnership of government entities to purchase the land from Don Boyer, a retired car dealership owner and trustee of the land. Cohen is trying to get money from Island County, the state and federal government, but there are several possible roadblocks.

Boyer is asking $2.7 million for the land, which has an assessed value of $447,000. The city is having the property appraised, but there could be trouble if the appraisal comes in low. Cohen said that government can’t legally pay more than the appraised value.

“The Boyer family has been very good,” Cohen said, “about allowing us the time and space we need to explore this opportunity.”

Conservation Futures debated

City staff applied for $1.7 million from the county’s Conservation Futures Program to help purchase the land, which will be replanted with native trees and other vegetation.

There already appears to be problems with the idea. First of all, the fund only contains about $826,000.

Island County Commissioner Bill Byrd said there may be legal questions as to whether the commercially-zoned property along Highway 20, at the intersection with Fakkema Road, qualifies for the program.

The goal of the Conservations Futures program is to conserve open space, wetlands, habitat areas, farms and timber lands for the public use. The money comes from a 6.25 cent tax on each $1,000 of assessed value.

County Parks Director Terry Arnold said the city’s application for the Boyer property is competing with an application from the Whidbey Camano Land Trust to purchase 51 acres at Hoypus Point for $600,000.

State Parks also is willing to help fund the Hoypus Point purchase, Arnold said, and manage the property afterward. The details of the state’s participation haven’t been worked out.

Arnold said the 51 acres is a beautiful piece of property that has potential for attractive equestrian trails.

The Boyer property, in contrast, doesn’t seem to have as much going for it. The application has to go through two volunteer groups — the technical advisory group and the citizens advisory group — before it gets to the commissioners.

Arnold predicts that the process will weed out the application that doesn’t belong.

“The process will bare itself out,” she said.

The technical advisory group’s criteria for judging a property, for example, doesn’t seem favorable for the Boyer property. While the city’s application states that the property qualifies as open space and an aquifer recharge area, the criteria doesn’t mention open space and only discusses aquifer recharge as a function of a wetland — which the Boyer land is not.

The Boyer property is a flat, trash-strewn piece along the highway and adjacent to a business.

Commissioners ignore advice

But on the other hand, the county commissioner don’t always follow the recommendations of the volunteer groups. In fact, some former and current members of the two boards are upset that the commissioners seem to ignore the recommendations after they put many hours of work into the process.

Arnold admits that there is a sense of frustration in both groups.

Last year, the technical advisory group set the purchase of a small piece of creek-side property as the lowest priority, but it was the only project among three applications that the commissioners did fund.

Byrd explained that the commissioners passed on the Hoypus Point property application last year because of disagreement over the price tag. The commissioners didn’t make a decision on the other application, Oak Harbor’s request for funding for a waterfront walkway, because an agreement wasn’t worked out with the landowners.

Arnold said the future of the Conservations Future program itself is in question. She’s having difficulty finding people willing to fill the four vacancies in the technical advisory group.

“We’re at a pivotal point,” she said.

Rob Harbour represents Ebey’s Landing on the technical advisory group. He said the group members don’t want to see the important program wilt away.

“We are determined to have a process this year,” he said, “whether we have a full complement of members or not.”

State, feds

in the mix

If the city doesn’t receive Conservation Futures funding for the Boyer property, Byrd said he would be in favor of finding alternative sources of county funding for the purchase. Yet he said he would like to see Oak Harbor “step up to the plate” and contribute.

While city officials haven’t agreed to contribute funding, Cohen proposed that the city finance the re-planting of trees on the property. She said that could qualify as matching funds.

When it comes to state funding, the news is mixed. State Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano, wasn’t successful this year in a request for the state to appropriate $2.7 million to the city of Oak Harbor to purchase the Boyer property.

Nevertheless, Haugen’s public information officer said there’s a $5-million fund set aside from money originally meant to help communities affected by military base closure. Rick Manugian said Oak Harbor will be able to apply for funding to purchase the Boyer property, though the state will only pay for a third of the price tag.

“It looks like Oak Harbor is in really good shape,” Manugian said. “They have all their ducks in a row.”

On the federal side, Cohen said the Department of Defense has an encroachment partnering program that could provide funding for the property. She said County Commissioner Mac McDowell spoke to an official at the Pentagon about the program and got a very positive response.

Cohen said the city hired the appraiser and is putting together “a package” for Navy Region Northwest to help Navy officials apply for the funding.

If plans to purchase the property don’t work out, Cohen said preventing high-density development on the property through zoning regulations is the “next best option.”

“Ideally we would like to purchase the property for long-term protection,” she said.

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