Conservation easements essential to protecting green space

Langley treasurer Wanda Grone (2-11-23 Sound Off) asserts that protecting green open spaces in urban areas via Conservation Easements is contrary to providing affordable housing. She’s just plain wrong. Lack of buildable land is not why housing has become so expensive throughout the northwest.

Her unstated assumption is that there is a shortage of land available for housing. That is simply not the case. At its present zoning Langley has the capacity to absorb many times the state’s 20 year projected population for Langley.

It is not buildable land that is lacking. It is the profit. Developers don’t want to build accessory dwellings, duplexes, and small apartment buildings. Those are not as profitable as big developments on big pieces of land – like the Coles Road site or the Fossek farm.

Ironically, even with those large parcels, developers complain that they can’t make new homes affordable and still make their expected profit. That’s one of the issues hanging up the Coles Road proposal. It is also hanging up the 160 unit project at the south end of Oak Harbor, the one that has become a weed field and a fire danger over the last few years. Bottom line: making large parcels available to developers is no guarantee that the resulting housing will be “affordable.”

Every culture develops systems for housing people, how it views land, rights to that land, how and by whom housing is constructed, and to whom it is practically available. The amount of available buildable land is only one small factor. The system that has developed in the US is plainly no longer adequate. Its great at providing housing for well-off people, but obviously a failure for pretty much everyone else. The social housing initiative just passed in Seattle is an example of using a systemic approach to this problem.

As for open space and greenbelts, the Growth Management Act says that Urban Growth Areas (Langley, Freeland, Oak Harbor) “shall include greenbelt and open space areas.” This is an acknowledgement of our need for green open space in order to live positive lives. A recent study examined the medical records of millions of people, and found a correlation between access to green spaces and dementia. People who live in green places have lower risk of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Another study in deteriorated poor urban neighborhoods with high crime rates picked out abandoned lots in 3 such neighborhoods. One was left alone. The second was cleaned up and then left alone. The third was turned into a park. The change in crime rates was measured around those 3 locations. #1 had no change. #2 had some reduction. #3 had a significant reduction in crime. From these two studies we can conclude that green open space is necessary to live a healthy, safe life.

Ms. Grone also makes the mistake of assuming that every place is equally developable. The land she wants to see available for development contains significant wetlands. Those wetlands provide flood control, carbon sequestration, and wildlife habitat among other functions. Removing development rights through a Conservation Easement serves the interests of all of us.

The wetland is protected. The landowner continues to manage the land. Residents and visitors are able to benefit from the ecological services the wetlands and trees are providing all of us. WEAN worked long and hard to convince Island County to create and implement the Conservation Futures fund and program. We see the current proposal as precisely what was intended, and hope the Island County Commissioners do so as well, and approve this proposal.

Marianne Edain is the founder of Whidbey Environmental Action Network (WEAN) and a member of Langley’s citizen-led board, the Parks and Open Space Commission.