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Port. farm begin lease discussions

It doesn’t take much of crowd to fill the tiny Port of Coupeville office, but more than two dozen people overflowed the meeting Wednesday to hear what the Port commissioners had to say about the Greenbank Farm capital project funding.

They sat on the floor and perched on the porch, waiting for an explanation of why the Port seemed to be stalling Greenbank Farm Management Group’s acquisition of $1.5 million in state capital projects funding.

President Mike Canfield and Commissioner Ed Van Patten were not happy that what they call efforts to simply gather all the necessary information were being perceived as obstructionist. They literally had their backs against the wall as they faced the audience, most of whom came in support of Greenbank Farm Management Group.

Van Patten told the crowd at one point, “I’m tired of being accused as a board of not wanting something we want.” He then issued a warning, “Don’t push us. When you push, I’ll push back.”

Van Patten said it was his “style” that when he is pushed, he doesn’t like it, and his reaction is to slow down, and make sure everything is done correctly.

Greenbank Farm Management Group has expressed concern that the Port may be hindering the process of allocating the capital project money to the non-profit group. Port President Mike Canfield, acting without the other commissioners’ knowledge, has written letters to legislators requesting information about the grant, and the Port has so far declined to meet with the farm group to renegotiate their lease to meet state requirements for receiving the money.

The group’s board president, Marcia Comer, wrote a letter to the commissioners in June requesting that they meet to discuss renegotiating the farm lease in order to receive the funding, which could have been available as early as Aug. 15 from the state.

Commissioners Van Patten and Canfield declined to meet with the board at that time, saying they needed to know first just what it was they would be talking about. They have still not met with the farm board.

“We’re trying to find the state’s conditions exactly,” Canfield said.

While the Port as a whole has not spoken with officials in the state Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development, the agency in charge of the funding, Canfield has written several letters to 10th District legislators Barry Sehlin, Barbara Bailey and Mary Margaret Haugen. In a letter dated July 11 he wrote requesting “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.”

Money earmarked for Farm, not Port

In several phone interviews with the Whidbey News-Times last week, Dan Aarthun, capital projects program manager for the Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development, said the funding is clearly earmarked to be received by Greenbank Farm Management Group, not the Port of Coupeville.

Laura Blankenship, Greenbank Farm Management Group executive director, told the commissioners that the farm board has been working with Aarthun and the state agency in charge of funding disbursal, and knew the conditions under which the money could be issued.

When Blankenship tried to outline those conditions at the Port meeting, Canfield stopped her at the words “site control.”

“Site control — those are the magic words,” Canfield said. “What does that mean exactly?”

Blankenship said site control was well defined by the state, and meant the farm management group had to have a 10-year lease from the Port in order to secure the funding.

Canfield drew guffaws from the audience when he asked, “What do they mean by ‘lease’?”

He clarified that question as meaning, “who pays whom?” If the farm board puts $1.5 million in grant money into farm renovations, and then leases out the buildings, who would get the rent, he asked. That point was not resolved at the meeting.

Port points to taxpayers

Canfield said the Port has a responsibility to the taxpayers who supported the purchase of Greenbank Farm property through the sale of bonds. He said the Port is committed to the farm to the tune of $1.3 million. The Port has now paid $170,00 out of pocket for renovation of barn number two, in order to lease it to prospective tenant, alpaca owner Dick Whittick.

Blankenship said the state is not dictating the terms of the lease agreement between the Port and the farm management group.

Canfield wasn’t satisfied with that, saying, “We would be happy to give you the lease if we know what it entails. We haven’t seen anything from the state.” He then asked why the Port is not involved with the state discussions if they are expected to give a new lease to the management group.

The discussion then devolved to a cycle of Blankenship saying the farm board wanted to meet with the Port, but the Port has chosen not to do that, and Canfield reiterating that they first needed to know what will be discussed before setting a meeting date.

Commissioner Benye Weber finally waded into the fray, saying the grant officer (Dan Aarthun) had more than 160 capital projects contracts to disburse to non-profit groups, and that it would take some time for the final contract to be written up.

“You will not have the final document from the get go,” she told the other commissioners.

Weber said while the Port will be commended for having the vision to support the farm in the long run, she was concerned that if they delay too long the farm would lose the money.

Van Patten responded to Weber with his “Don’t push us,” comment, and added, “We’re not dragging our feet. We want a contract that we can live with for 10 years. What’s wrong with asking for information from the state?”

He pointed out the farm group has not yet met the state criteria of providing $300,000 in matching funding for the proposed $1.8 million renovation project.

“We’re waiting for all things to get put together,” he said.

In response to Canfield’s claim that “the state won’t talk to us,” Weber pointed out that the farm management group made the application for the funding, and the state is going to call them, not the Port.

Public seeks time to talk

The Port commissioners did not provide a public comment period, so those in attendance who wished to speak had to break in when they could. Tempers rose with the temperature in the stuffy meeting room. One woman interrupted Canfield, who then interrupted her, telling her to be quiet. She responded by leaving the meeting.

Farm volunteer Derek Prichard asked if it would be possible for the state to award the contract if the Port just made a lease agreement in principle, then worked out the details after they saw the state funding contract.

Blankenship said that was a possibility.

Comer told the commissioners she knew the Port was looking out for taxpayers, but that what the farm group was bringing to the Port in terms of economic development for the island is worth more than the entire cost of the project.

“Please don’t let this go away,” she said.

“We have no intention of letting it go away,” Canfield said.

Greenbank resident Peggy Urstad told the board she had always been supportive of the farm and what it could do to enhance Whidbey Island.

“I urge you to make it happen,” she told the commissioners.

Canfield responded that one way to make it happen would be to “tell the Whidbey News-Times to stop writing stupid headlines,” referring to the Aug. 9 A1 headline, “Port, Farm split over state funding.”

He later said, “I don’t want to see again that the Port and management group are going in different directions — we’re not.”

Jan Gunn, who runs Whidbey Pies Cafe at Greenbank Farm, told the commissioners the 10-year lease was good for everyone, because it would let everyone get down to business and stop worrying about leases.

“Let’s take care of the details as best we can,” she said.

The commissioners and Greenbank Farm Management Group came to an agreement that the farm board would work out a lease proposal and bring it to the September Port meeting.

After the meeting the attendants lingered in the fresh air for a few minutes along Coupeville Wharf.

Bruce Bryson, who is vying for Canfield’s seat in November, had no comment on the proceedings.

“It’s too much to digest,” he said, but he felt Greenbank Farm and the management group were a great asset to Island County. Canfield is not seeking re-election.

“It was great to hear all three in agreement and moving forward to support the farm,” Blankenship said.

Greenbank cabinetmaker and farm supporter Rob Hetler said he believes Greenbank Farm can be a focal point of Whidbey Island.

“You have Langley, Coupeville, and Greenbank Farm,” he said.

Hetler said he had a sense that the Port commissioners have not bent over backwards to make the funding happen.

“I would like to see the Port be a landlord, period,” he said.

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

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