Island County citizen's panel suggests more than requested for conservation projects

A citizens group reviewing applications for Conservation Futures funds recommended the Island County commissioners hand out more money than was requested for two proposed projects.

The Port of Coupeville applied for $400,000 from the Conservation Futures funds to pay for a conservation easement on the open space at the publicly owned Greebank Farm. Instead, the advisory group recommended the port should receive $550,000.

The Pacific Rim Institute sought $400,000 to buy 175 acres located near Outlying Field from the Au Sable Institute. Instead, the advisory group boosted its recommendation to $500,000.

Even though the county is facing a continuing budget shortfall in the general fund, Conservation Futures has its own pot of money. The fund is devoted to supporting projects that conserve and preserve open space and can’t be used any other way. Conservation Futures is financed by a property tax of 6.25 cents per $1,000 of assessed value.

Larry Kwarsick, chair of the Citizens Advisory Board, said the panel recommended increasing the Greenbank Farm award because the farm is a resource that benefits more than just Central Whidbey, therefore a wider area should help pay the debt the port has on the farm. Only port district residents are currently paying for the farm through their port taxes.

“The Greenbank Farm is an asset that goes beyond the Central Whidbey area,” Kwarsick said.

The Port of Coupeville is currently paying $100,000 a year on bonds that funded the purchase of the farm in 1997. That debt is scheduled to be paid off in 2017. However, years of such payments have exhausted the port’s reserves and officials have had to delay maintenance projects because money wasn’t available.

Even with the Conservation Futures help, the taxpayers in the port district would still be responsible for paying 75 percent of the debt for the Greenbank Farm, Kwarsick said.

As proposed by the citizens committee, the port would receive $100,000 a year for the first three years and $50,000 a year for the next five.

Jim Patton, executive director of the port, described the advisory group recommendation as a “game changer.”

“The first and most obvious benefit of the additional money will be to accomplish all of the deferred maintenance at the Greenbank Farm and the Coupeville Wharf,” Patton said. It would also give the port money for matching grants, he added.

Meanwhile, the Pacific Rim Institute for Environmental Studies wants to purchase 175 Central Whidbey acres that include a native prairie remnant, trails, forest and open land. Pacific Rim formed after it was announced the Au Sable Institute planned to close the Whidbey campus and eventually sell the property.

“This is a precious treasure for many reasons,” said Robert Pelant, executive director for the Pacific Rim Institute.

Pacific Rim Institute wanted $400,000 in Conservation Futures and planned other ways to raise the additional $100,000 needed to buy the property.

However, Kwarsick said that the property was important enough that the advisory group decided to fully fund the purchase price.

There is no assurance the advisory board’s recommendations will become reality. The Island County commissioners will ultimately decide on the funding.

A third project, in which the Whidbey Camano Land Trust asked for $250,000 for farmland preservation, was also endorsed by the advisory board.

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