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Island County's new $5 land fee is official

People who own property in Island County will have an extra fee on their tax statements next year.

The Island County commissioners unanimously approved an ordinance Wednesday approving a special assessment to fund the Whidbey Island Conservation District and the Snohomish County Conservation District, which serves Camano Island.

The ordinance is simplified from what the conservation districts initially proposed, but a Court of Appeals decision in a Mason County case cleared the way for the easier-to-process assessment. The ordinance sets the assessment at $5 per parcel and $0.00 per acre, dropping the 5 cents per acre proposal. The special assessment will run for 10 years.

In 2010, the assessment will bring in about $235,000. The per-acre fee would have only brought in another 2.1 percent, according to Whidbey Island Conservation District Director Karen Bishop.

Land that is zoned rural forest won’t be assessed because the state law makes it too complicated and expensive for the county to do so. As a result, the districts can’t use the special assessment money to help rural forest property.

Commissioners Helen Price Johnson said that while 78 percent of the county is covered in some type of forest land, most of it is not zoned rural forest.

“The bulk of forest owners in Island County will benefit from this program,” she said.

In addition, the commissioners approved an interlocal agreement between the county and conservation districts that protects the county from financial liability in case the special assessment is invalidated. They also approved a letter to the Department of Ecology supporting the Whidbey Island Conservation District’s application for a 2011 Centennial Clean Water Funds for the Whidbey Small Farms Water Quality Improvement Project.

The letter states that the number of farms in Island County has increased in recent years. The conservation districts are important resources for farmers.

“Many farms are now operated by people who are new to farming and have a strong desire to make the right decisions on their property in order to farm in a way that is positive for the environment and water quality,” the letter states.

Price Johnson pointed out that, according to preliminary data, more than $1 million was generated in local farmers markets in the last year.

Commissioner Angie Homola said a memorandum of understanding between the county and the conservation districts should address her concerns that farm plans, which the districts help farmers create, are in compliance with the county’s critical areas ordinance.

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