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Island County landowners face conservation district assessment

In an attempt to break its dependency on grant funding, the Whidbey Island Conservation District is looking to county property owners to foot the bill.

Supervisors are proposing an assessment where property owners will pay $5 per parcel plus 5 cents per acre each year.

In 2010, the assessment would bring in an estimated $240,000.

The assessment doesn’t have to go to a vote of the people for approval. Rather, state law allows for the Board of Island County Commissioners to approve the new fee.

Currently, approximately 95 percent of the conservation district’s budget comes from grant funding, which can fluctuate from year to year.

“The assessment doesn’t increase our budget. What it does is stabilize our budget,” Whidbey Island Conservation District Manager Karen Bishop told the Coupeville Town Council Tuesday evening.

At least one county commissioner is open to the idea of approving the fee.

“I am, in general terms, supportive of the concept,” Commissioner John Dean said Thursday. He said there is a great need for consultation on both Whidbey and Camano island to help landowners preserve farms and rural character.

“I think their work is important to our way of life,” Dean said.

Bishop said having a stable funding source will allow the district to keep its current staff. The conservation district employees a full-time executive director, a full-time natural resource planner, a part-time farm and forest conservation planner and a part-time office manager.

The Whidbey Island Conservation District provides a variety of programs for property owners living inside and outside city limits.

Since the assessment would be applied to all property owners, Bishop noted that the conservation district has helped land owners in Oak Harbor, Coupeville and Langley learn about low impact development techniques.

The conservation district offers natural resource planning and technical assistance, a program to preserve sustainable farms and forest lands and various public outreach and education opportunities.

Bishop said 76 percent of the money raised from the assessment would stay on Whidbey Island while the remaining 24 percent would go toward programs on Camano Island. Camano is currently served by the Snohomish Conservation District, however, most of its resources are devoted elsewhere. Camano Island was incorporated into the Snohomish Conservation District before the Whidbey Island Conservation District existed.

Dean said Snohomish district staff has had difficulty responding to the needs of Camano Island residents. He said that’s been a consistent theme for the past 20 years. Dean lives on Camano and represents District 3, which includes Camano and North Whidbey outside of Oak Harbor.

In addition, proponents say the assessment will help the district obtain further grant funding by providing a source for matching money.

The Whidbey Island Conservation District will hold two public meetings on Whidbey Island in July. The first takes place Wednesday, July 8, at 3 p.m. at the Taylor Road Fire Station, 2440 Taylor Rd.

The second meeting takes place Wednesday, July 8, 7 p.m., in the Unitarian Universalist meeting hall, 20103 Highway 525, Freeland.

Bishop said that the meetings will provide a chance to gather public input for the proposed assessment. If there is a need for more input to be taken, then another public meeting would be scheduled.

She said she has to have a proposal ready for the commissioners to consider in August.

Dean said the commissioners will consider the input gathered at the public meetings before making a decision either way.

“We’re going to weigh the comments that are coming through these meetings pretty heavily,” Dean said.

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