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Conservation District tax prompts questions at Oak Harbor hearing

Whidbey Island Conservation District Board of Supervisors Fran Einterz, Duke LeBaron and Karen Krug listen to people comment about a proposed  assessment that will cost property owners $5 dollars per parcel plus 5 cents per acre. - Nathan Whalen/Whidbey News-Times
Whidbey Island Conservation District Board of Supervisors Fran Einterz, Duke LeBaron and Karen Krug listen to people comment about a proposed assessment that will cost property owners $5 dollars per parcel plus 5 cents per acre.
— image credit: Nathan Whalen/Whidbey News-Times

Whidbey Island Conservation District supervisors had their first chance to hear public opinion about a proposed new property tax during a sparsely attended meeting Wednesday afternoon at the Taylor Road Fire Station.

Seven people participated in the first public hearing concerning a tax where property owners would pay $5 per parcel plus 5 cents per acre. If approved, it would bring in approximately $240,000 to fund Conservation District programs.

The new assessment comes as many farmers in Island County soon will have to develop environmental farm plans in order to comply with the county's critical areas ordinance.

Fran Einterz, member of the District's Board of Supervisors, said 522 families will need to develop farm plans in order to comply with the Critical Areas Ordinance.

Conservation District Manager Karen Bishop said the assessment alone won't provide enough money to hire staff needed to help rural families develop plans. Rather, the funding is an attempt to stabilize the district's funding.

Several years ago, the Conservation District had to lay off its farm planner and contract with the Skagit County Conservation District to help with farm planning. She didn't know when the farm plan requirement will be implemented. The county's critical areas ordinance is tied up in court.

The majority of the people attending the meeting seemed supportive of the assessment, however, several audience members raised concerns and wanted answers.

One man wanted to know if the Conservation District looked at other forms of funding instead of a tax. He also wanted to know if the assessment can be based on property values rather than number of parcels. The man also noted that smaller farms are more likely to use Conservation District services that will be funded by larger farmers.

"The more land you own the more it's going to cost you," the man said during the question and answer period. He did not provide his name.

Conservation officials said they are limited by state law and can only collect assessment based on parcels.

The Whidbey Island Conservation District is a non-regulatory agency that formed on Whidbey Island in 1967. The organization provides help with natural resource planning and low impact development. It also helps land owners preserve farm and forest land.

The bulk of the Conservation District funding currently comes from grants. However that amount fluctuates, which makes it difficult for staff to maintain programs.

David Ridle, who works for Skagit Farmers Supply, questioned whether the Conservation District will continue to seek grants if the assessment is levied by the Island County commissioners.

Einterz said the funding will make the district more competitive for grants because it could provide matching money.

Supervisor Karen Krug added that grants may become more competitive as the economy will limit the availability of funds.

Bishop said that the state regulation allowing the assessment was written so it wouldn't have to go on the ballot for a public vote. Conservation Districts couldn't afford the expense of running a ballot proposal, she said.

The Wednesday afternoon meeting was the first public meeting where people could comment about the proposal. A second meeting took place later Wednesday in Freeland. Bishop said another meeting could be scheduled if more input is needed. She said a proposal should be ready for the commissioners' consideration by Aug. 1.

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