Oak Harbor farmland at center of controversy

Whidbey leaders are in the unusual position of opposing a nonprofit’s application for state funding.

Whidbey leaders are in the unusual position of opposing a nonprofit organization’s application for state funding.

The Whidbey Camano Land Trust is pursuing a state Farmland Preservation Grant to purchase a conservation easement on 130 acres of farmland south of Oak Harbor.

The problem, from the point of view of city and county leaders, is that 70 acres of the property is in the joint planning area, the area earmarked to become part of the urban growth area, or UGA, in the future. The UGA, in turn, is the area where the city boundaries could expand in the future to make room for growth; a conservation easement, however, would protect the property from development in perpetuity.

“There is probably nothing out there that would be more catastrophic to Oak Harbor’s future,” Oak Harbor Councilmember Shane Hoffmire said during a council meeting last week.

Both the city and a county commissioner are sending letters to the state expressing opposition to the grant application.

Ryan Elting, the conservation director of the Whidbey Camano Land Trust, gave a presentation via videoconferencing to the council during the meeting to explain the complicated situation.

The two adjacent properties along Highway 20, he explained, are the 103-acre Massey Farm and the 26-acre Beeksma property. He referred to the newly combined properties as the “Bell’s Farm North,” which he described as part of a farm expansion project.

Kyle Flack, who owns Bell’s Farm with family members, explained that options are limited, and expensive, on Whidbey Island for farmers hoping to expand. As a result, his family worked out a plan with the land trust in which the family would buy the properties near Oak Harbor and the group would seek the state grant to purchase the development rights on both the new land and the original Bell’s Farm.

Flack said the land will be farmed without any chemicals. He plans “regenerative grazing” of cows, sheep and pigs on the site, as well as the farm’s famous strawberries.

Flack said he was shocked that city leaders spoke against the plans to preserve and protect valuable farmland just because the property is in the joint planning area and “at some point way off, maybe, possibly it could be in the UGA.”

Elting explained that the land trust works to protect natural habitats and resource lands in Island County by purchasing easements or property. The group has had a great deal of success in protecting woods, beaches, prairies and farms on Whidbey and Camano islands over the years. The land trust’s operations are largely funded by donations while many of the purchases are funded through government grants, often county Conservation Futures funds.

Elting said Land Trust officials were unaware of the property being partly in the joint planning area at the time the agreement was conceived. He said the property owners sought out the land trust to purchase the development rights on the parcels.

He explained local government officials’ opposition to the grant puts him in a difficult position because of the promises that were made to the landowners. He pointed out that they are private property owners have property rights. Also, he emphasized that Bell’s Farm purchased the property with the understanding that the land trust would seek the easement.

State Sen. Ron Muzzall supports the project, Elting said, because he’s in favor of preserving farmland and property rights.

On the other hand, Island County Commissioner Jill Johnson said she expressed her concerns about the project to the land trust a few weeks ago. Removing developable land from the joint planning area, she said, means that the city boundaries will have to expand that much farther in the future to accommodate growth. That’s urban sprawl, she said, the very thing the state Growth Management Act seeks to limit.

Johnson said she feels the group is putting activism ahead of pragmatism when it comes to its projects. She plans on sending a letter to the state opposing the grant.

Likewise, council members spoke out during the June 7 meeting against the project and the grant, although the majority of members emphasized that they support and appreciate the land trust’s work.

“It’s not about the mission, it’s about the location,” Councilmember Jim Woessner said, pointing out that the city is earmarked to take the bulk of the county’s growth in the future.

Hoffmire emphasized that the city can really only expand to the south because of the presence of the Navy base and geographical restrictions, which means the farmland is vital for future growth. Councilmembers Dan Evans and Bryan Stucky said they agreed with him.

City Administrator Blaine Oborn explained that the land is the only property on Highway 20 with the potential for sizable commercial development. The city has already extended utilities to the area, he said. He said the city has been pushing the county for years to expand the joint planning area and that the properties in question should be entirely within it.

A conservation easement on the property, he said, would diminish affordable housing opportunities in the future.

In the end, the council members unanimously passed a motion directing staff to send the state a letter expressing the council’s “extreme disapproval” of the grant.