Sound Off: Conservation easements can inhibit affordable housing


More housing or protecting family farms? That is the question, Island County.

Owners of a heritage farm on South Whidbey made a presentation asking for support from the Langley City Council for the sale of a conservation easement on 25 acres of forest constituting part of their farm, which has been held by their family for more than 100 years. The funding for the conservation easement purchase would be provided by Whidbey Camano Land Trust under the Island County Conservation Futures program. Those conservation easements are generally granted in perpetuity, meaning the development rights to that land would be forever gone. The property owners receive an amount determined by appraisal, which can amount to several hundred thousand dollars for a parcel of this size located close to Langley.

The buzzphrase need for all of Island County these past few years has been “more affordable” or “workforce” housing – it is needed for the employees of local businesses, whether they be our local Nichols Brothers Boat Builders, or our restaurants and stores in Langley, Clinton, Freeland, Greenbank and Coupeville.

There are many bills introduced in the state legislature each year to promote conditions amenable to the building of these apartments, townhouses, or single-family homes and remove obstacles put in place by prior legislation. Growth of this type is limited to areas allowed under Washington State’s Growth Management Act, mainly within the city limits or Joint Planning Areas surrounding Oak Harbor, Coupeville and Langley. Freeland is also recognized as a possible growth area, but since there is no sewer utility, additional density is not probable in the near future.

There is a paradox here – certainly we can all identify with the desire of a family to keep its farm intact. But we also need more housing so that the employees of our small businesses have a place to live on island without commuting by ferry. The addition of funding provided by Conservation Futures tips the balance in favor of the family maintaining its farm in its current state instead of selling it off to developers.

But we as taxpayers have some control over how those Conservation Futures dollars are allocated. That determination is made by the Board of Island County Commissioners elected to make decisions for us – they vote to allocate the tax dollars we pay to projects worthy of funding.

Ask your commissioners how the Conservation Futures tax revenue has been spent for the past few years and their plans for 2023 and forward. Has it taken away opportunities for housing development that could be utilized for workforce or housing that middle class families can afford? I am not talking about shelters for the homeless (that is a different pot of money) – I am talking about housing for employed workers of our island businesses. Conservation Futures have funded purchases of large tracts of land or easements upon them, some of which exist within Joint Planning Areas adjoining current city or town boundaries, that could be used for housing development in the next 10-20 years.

This question needs to be answered now for future planning purposes – otherwise Land Trust purchases now could inhibit future neighborhood and community projects and disrupt our local economic development of Whidbey Island for years to come. What is your priority? Tell your county commissioner.

Wanda Grone is the former Island County treasurer and the current finance director in Langley.