Vote no on land bank tax | Editorial

Money, money, money.

This November’s ballot revolves around how much of our cash we’re willing to part with. We supported the school levy. We wrote in opposition of the solid waste parcel fee. It’s been harder to reach a conclusion about the third initiative on our ballots: the land bank’s REET.

While we support the land bank’s work, we think it’s the right time to decrease the amount of money the organization receives from real estate sales.

You cannot deny the Land Bank’s success in preserving open space – it is woven into the landscape. Turtleback Mountain on Orcas, Westside and Limekiln preserves of San Juan, and Hummel Lake on Lopez are just a few examples.

But the Land Bank’s primary funding source can be denied. In fact, it was set up with just such a question like that in mind.

It’s called a “sunset clause,” and it was written into the enabling legislation that set the stage for creation of a publicly owned, local land conservation agency, which, 20 years later, remains the only one of its kind in Washington state.

As a result, San Juan County voters get to decide every dozen years or so whether that principal funding source, an excise tax of up to 1 percent applied to local real estate sales — paid by the buyer — ought to remain in effect for 12 more years.

We believe that it should, but not at 1 percent.

The Land Bank now owns 3,180 acres of land outright; it leases 400 acres on Lopez Hill. Of all the land in San Juan County, the land bank owns 2.86 percent. Its 31 preserves are mostly open to the public and allow for various levels of low-impact recreation. Another 2,078 acres of land, spread across 39 properties on seven different islands, are protected by conservation easements.

Add easements and preserves together and you have an area greater in size than Moran State Park, the single largest tract of land in the San Juans. That’s something to be celebrated.

But would the Land Bank still be able achieve its mission if that excise tax were trimmed by 1/2 a percent? It still would have its Stewardship Fund, which is set aside for management of preserves and easements, generates interest income and totaled roughly $3.5 million in 2010. It would still be the yearly beneficiary of the county Conservation Futures fund, a property tax levy that contributed nearly $270,000 to its bottom line a year ago. It would still have those 12 or so properties that were targeted for resale when purchased under what has become a dormant Conservation Buyers Program.

On Orcas, we enjoy our one mile of public shoreline access and wish we had more. Those advocating renewing the REET say the land bank intends to acquire more beach property, but after 20 years of existence, Orcas only has that one mile.

Because the current REET is not due to expire until 2014, at which time the Land Bank expects to be debt free, there is still ample time for broad discussion about the merits of the real estate excise tax, its percentage, or whether it should be retired along with a hearty thanks for a job well done.

We don’t expect our position to be a popular one. But if not now, then when?

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