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Commissioners consider change to futures rules

A controversial rule meant to evenly divide spending of Conservation Futures Funds throughout Island County may be changed, but not in the way a citizen advisory group or local environmentalists would like to see.

Island County Commissioners recently amended a proposed ordinance to divide the county up into three districts, following school district boundaries. The funds available to be used in each area would be determined by a percentage method, aimed at a parity of spending within the areas.

At a recent meeting of the Citizens Advisory Board, the group unanimously sent a recommendation to the commissioners to end the practice altogether of dividing Conservation Futures spending by district.

“It dilutes the resources,” said Larry Kwarsick, chairman of the advisory board and former county public works director, “and has a significant negative effect on the community’s ability to acquire open space.”

The program was started in 1993 using a 6.25 cent per thousand property tax to purchase land for conservation and public access projects. The money can also be used for maintenance.

By 1997 the central and southern parts of Whidbey Island had received 84 percent of the funds allocated in the first five years, making for a lopsided disbursement. A large chunk of that went to the purchase of Greenbank Farm, for nearly $2.3 million.

Only slightly more than that, $2.83 million, has gone to all the projects to date on North Whidbey and on Camano islands.

In 1997, Commissioner Mac McDowell pointed out the inequity and proposed the ordinance be amended to correct it. The county was designated as northern — including Camano Island — and southern areas. Despite objections from many present at the public hearing in July 1997, commissioners McDowell, Mike Shelton and Tom Shaughnessy passed the amendment.

It is now anticipated that the spending in the northern and southern areas will be equal by the end of the year.

The new ordinance, as originally written, would have seen Island County divided into four distribution areas in two geographical zones based on North and South Island County.

Although no public comment was made at the meeting, at least one of the commissioners voiced concern about the ordinance.

“I don’t favor this change in allocation of conservation future funds,” Shelton said.

With an amendment sponsored by Shelton, there would only be three divisions drawn up with school district boundaries.

Division one would be Camano Island along the lines of the Stanwood-Camano School District. The second division would be drawn along Oak Harbor School District lines. The third would incorporate the Coupeville and South Whidbey School District areas as its boundary.

“At least the amendment makes the ordinance more palatable for the people in my district,” Shelton said.

Historically there have been more conservation lands available for purchase in South Whidbey than any other area.

“If a conservation opportunity comes along it can’t be really be sought after unless the money is in one pot,” said Terri Arnold, administrator of the Conservation Futures Fund.

“Currently, South Whidbey cannot submit for any more projects until North Whidbey reaches parity,” she added.

So far this year the amount of the fund is up to $825,000. Under the proposal, it would be divided three or four ways.

“It’ll make it hard for any one entity to purchase open space for $206,000,” said Arnold. “It could force areas to wait to buy land for projects.”

Further discussion will enable the public to weigh in on the matter.

The Board of County Commissioners scheduled a public hearing 10:45 a.m., June 12, at the Board of County Commissioners Hearing Room at the Island County Annex Building.

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