News

Farm, port split over state funding

A $1.5 million state grant to Greenbank Farm could be in jeopardy unless differences are ironed out between the farm’s management and the Port of Coupeville.

Before the money is handed over by the state, a revised lease may be needed, future control of the facilities must be agreed upon, and the Port may have to come up with more money to complete capital construction plans largely funded by the state.

Greenbank Farm Management Group has worked for the last year to secure $1.5 million in capital projects funding from the state to renovate historic Greenbank Farm. Laura Blankenship, executive director of the non-profit group, has made numerous treks to Olympia to lobby the lawmakers with homemade loganberry pies from Whidbey Pies. Farm supporters have written dozens of letters encouraging the state to fund the capital project proposal which would create economic development at the farm. Three local state politicians have been vocally supportive from the start.

In spite of the tight economic times the funding proposal was approved by the governor and both branches of the Legislature. It seemed like a done deal. Money in the bank. Champagne on ice.

Not so fast, says the Port of Coupeville, which owns the farm and is the management group’s landlord.

“We thought the money was for the Port of Coupeville,” Port consultant John Coyne said Thursday, speaking at the request of Port President Mike Canfield.

“It was our understanding that the Port was seeking money for renovation of the farm,” Coyne said.

The state could have started disbursing the funds for farm renovation projects as early as mid August. But now it’s uncertain when, or even if, the management group will get the money unless it can work out a few glitches with the Port.

Site control|

major issue

According to state guidelines, the group that gets the money must have control of the project site, either by ownership or a long-term lease.

“The state won’t spend taxpayers’ money on something that is not going to be completed,” said Dan Aarthun, capital projects manager for the state Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development in Olympia. To ensure the completion of projects the state requires at minimum a five-year lease with a five-year renewable option.

Greenbank Farm Management Group currently has a two-year contract with the Port, with an automatic three-year extension after Feb. 28, 2004; not enough to satisfy the state requirement.

Coyne said the Port commissioners are unsure about leasing the farm to the group for 10 years.

“We have no problem with them getting the money,” he said. “We are uncomfortable with the site control issue.”

At the heart of the site control issue is the question of what happens to the buildings and grounds once renovation is completed.

“Who collects the rent?” Coyne said. “To whom does the tenant pay rent?”

According to Coyne, the Port commissioners take the position that they need to see a return on their investment in purchasing 151 acres of the farm from the county in 1997 for $1,225,114.

“We didn’t buy it for a park,” he said. “That’s not the notion under which we purchased the property.”

While the contract with Island County states: “The Port’s interest in acquiring Greenbank Farm is to preserve the economic presence of the historic farm operations and to encourage appropriate economic development and promote tourism within Island County,” Coyne questioned the meaning of “economic development.”

“It depends on your interpretation,” he said. The Port’s interpretation is that economic development means receiving some payback for the farm purchase, as well as developing the community economy.

Port president writes letters

During the months of lobbying, the Port commissioners wrote only one official letter in support of the management group’s capital project proposal, Blankenship said. As of Thursday they had not contacted Aarthun at the economic development department to clarify state requirements, nor had they met with the farm group to work out terms of a new lease as requested. But Canfield has been writing letters to Senator Mary Margaret Haugen, and Representatives Barry Sehlin and Barbara Bailey, who no longer have any control over the funding.

In a letter to all three legislators dated July 22, 2003, Canfield requested that the Port “be afforded the opportunity to review and approve any terms and conditions that may be prescribed with regard to the use of the state funding so as to assure compliance with the Port’s plans and legal obligations.”

In a reply dated July 31, Sehlin informed Canfield that, while the Capital Budget Committee heard testimony, received numerous personal visits, phone calls, letters and e-mails from the Greenbank Farm Management Group and its supporters, “at no time during this period did the Port of Coupeville indicate that the Greenbank Farm Management Group did not have the authority under their contract to represent the Greenbank Farm in this process.”

Sehlin went on to write, “It is the clear intent of the Legislature that these funds be disbursed to the Greenbank Farm Management Group.”

He also cautioned Canfield that holding up the funding could mean losing it entirely.

“If you wish to delay the project until your concerns are addressed, disbursement of the funds could possibly still be withheld until after the 2004 legislative session. That, however, would be an extremely risky course,” he wrote. “There is no guarantee that such a change would be accepted, or that the funds would even be retained in the next Capital Budget.”

Senator Haugen responded to Canfield’s letter, saying, “It is my feeling that the Greenbank Farm Management Group is very capable of implementing the intent of this budget item. We all would be extremely disappointed if the project were to be stalled at this time.”

Canfield cites lease limits

In another letter to the three legislators, dated Aug. 4, 2003, Canfield argues that the funding was awarded to “Greenbank Farm” rather than “Greenbank Farm Management Group” or the Port, and points out that the management group has no ownership rights in the Port tract other than the lease on one barn and two small residencies.

“Specifically, the GFMG has no ownership interest in the two facilities proposed for renovation,” he wrote.

The lease agreement currently covers only the Jim Davis House, the caretaker’s cottage, the main barn and associated common areas including the parking lot and surrounding areas within the Port property. Not mentioned in the lease are barns two and three, which are listed in the proposal as the major components of the farm’s capital project.

Canfield’s letters to the politicians were not written with the consensus, or even the knowledge, of the other Port Commissioners.

“I can’t remember being told, or hearing in a meeting, about the letters being sent,” Commissioner Benye Weber said. “It was not an action item.”

Weber and Commissioner Ed Van Patten Thursday said they would have liked to have seen the issue handled differently.

“I feel there is a lack of communication between the Port, farm board and consultant (Coyne),” she said. “We need to sit down and talk.”

Weber said while there are a few sticking points, “For the good of Island County and the public who supported this, we need to get our act together.”

Weber and Van Patten said they had no problem with the Greenbank Farm Management Group board overseeing the $1.5 million.

“They have some very competent people there,” Van Patten said.

Canfield said he wrote to the legislators simply to get information regarding the grant.

“We’re trying to see that all conditions are met in order to meet the needs of the farm and the Port,” he said Thursday.

He said the Port is looking forward to the farm getting the funding, and they are doing their best to see that happens.

Match funding questioned

Another stipulation of the state for disbursal is that Greenbank Farm must come up with the rest of the funding for the proposed $1.8 million in renovations.

“We won’t start a program that can’t be finished,” Aarthun, the state official, said. If the money from the state is not sufficient to complete the project, the recipient is required to make up the difference, he explained.

Whether the Port will pitch in that “match money” is murky, as it has already spent $160,000 renovating barn number two, before getting the state funding. There is some disagreement among the commissioners about their responsibility for the matching money, but Canfield speculated that if the farm needs the match money, they would “make it happen.”

Greenbank Farm Management Group director Laura Blankenship is trying to take a “Zen” approach to the whole process. Issues with how to slice the state money pie are not a surprise.

“There are always strings and limitations,” she said. “It’s not all that unusual to get details like this at the contracting stage.”

She said the farm board didn’t know about stipulations such as the 10-year lease until this summer, and they didn’t know site control would be an issue. Still, she remains cautiously optimistic.

“I know it will come together,” she said.

You can reach News-Times reporter Marcie Miller at mmiller@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611

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