Land fee proposal moves forward in Island County

Island County commissioners took a step toward approving a new fee on county property that would fund two conservation districts.

The three commissioners unanimously approved a motion to instruct the county prosecutor to draft the necessary ordinance to implement the special assessment of $5 per parcel plus 5 cents per acre. But the ultimate passage of the ordinance may not be a slam dunk.

All three commissioners said it was clear that the Whidbey Island Conservation Districts and the Snomohish Conservation District — which serves Camano Island — provide both general and specific benefits to property owners. Commissioner John Dean read a speech explaining his support for the special assessment.

“The overall protection of Whidbey or Camano Island drinking water supplies, or the reduction of pollution from hobby farm waste is a clear benefit, far exceeding what will be a cost, for most people, of pennies a day. I benefit when my neighbor, through the efforts of the Conservation District, avoids fouling my water supply,” he said.

Nevertheless, there are still some knotty issues that need to be hammered out.

As part of the motion, the commissioners required the conservation districts to refund any fees if the courts invalidate the ordinance down the road. The state Court of Appeals is currently considering a somewhat-related case involving a special assessment for the Mason County Conservation District.

In addition, Island County Assessor Dave Mattens has laid out a list of concerns he has about the implementation of the special assessment. He said his bare-bones staff may not have time to create an assessment roll. Also, the county doesn’t have accurate acreage figures for all parcels in the county.

Mattens is meeting with officials from the conservation districts this week to discuss his concerns.

On Monday, Commissioner Angie Homola brought up her worries about whether farm plans, which the conservation districts help farmers create, will protect sensitive areas in the county.

“I want to ensure some level of scrutiny in how the critical areas ordinance is addressed in farm plans,” she said.

The Whidbey Island Conservation District and the Snohomish Conservation District proposed the yearly assessment of $5 per parcel of land, plus an additional 5 cents per acre. It would be charged to all parcels in the unincorporated county and within Oak Harbor, Langley and Coupeville, except those not subject to property tax or land zoned “rural forest” under the county’s zoning code.

If the commissioners approve the assessment, it would bring in an estimated $240,000 next year to fund operations of the two districts.

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