With natural bluffs, forest land and one-third of a mile of shoreline, islanders are celebrating the conservation of the 58-acre Glenwood Inn property on Orcas Island, although the project has come with controversy after a miscommunication between the involved entities.
“The good news is that people of San Juan County have become owners of this spectacular parcel — now and forever,” Land Bank commissioner Sandi Friel told the commission at its July 15 regular meeting.
There was, however, a communication issue with three parties: the county council, the land bank and the San Juan Preservation Trust. The crux of the issue is a county resolution signed June 14, retaining the rights to two development areas. San Juan County Council members have said they would like to see a portion of the property developed to include work housing. Land bank and preservation trust representatives say they were not aware of this intention.
Purchase of the property
At the end of June, the San Juan County Conservation Land Bank and the San Juan Preservation Trust jointly announced that their bid to acquire the former Glenwood Inn property for permanent conservation concluded successfully. The Land Bank has assumed ownership of the shoreline parcel. To assist in financing the $6.3 million acquisition, the trust will raise funds to purchase a conservation easement from the county, thereby creating a dual layer of protection for the property’s considerable conservation values.
The trust has submitted a grant, jointly with the land bank, to the Puget Sound Acquisition and Restoration Fund that could potentially provide $3 million toward the project. The grant application states that the trust’s conservation easement would extinguish ten of the 11 development rights that come with the parcel. The grant proposal has been ranked nine out of 11 proposals, and due to some projects dropping out, has only gone up in the ranking. Final decisions will not be announced until 2023.
The effect on the grant proposal is unclear. According to the SJPT’s director of communications and outreach Craig Canine, if they do not receive the grant, or only receive a portion of the funds, it would be a significant step backward financially, and they would need to ramp up other fundraising efforts. It should also be noted that the development of the upper lands of the property could impact any forage fish habitat on the beach. This in turn impacts salmon, which impacts Southern Resident Orcas, which is the reason the grant could be impacted.
Upon realizing the discrepancy, Land Bank Executive director Lincoln Bormann attempted to explain to the council what occurred from his perspective in a memo sent to them in late June.
“The land bank began looking at this property over a year ago, recognizing it as one of the last significant shoreline access opportunities on Orcas. Together with the San Juan Preservation Trust, we engaged the estate trustee over perhaps nine months, leading ultimately to a successful contract for $6.35M,” Bormann wrote. “This project required considerable work to look at alternative ideas, explore funding possibilities, and create a workable structure; all under the intense pressure of the estate putting the property on the market (and competing once listing actually occurred). Among alternative ideas considered were: 1) Affordable housing. SJPT consulted with OPAL, but it didn’t fit for them as they had undeveloped property already and concluded that the water resource wasn’t there for a rural cluster; 2) Tribal acquisition. The Lummi Tribal Council visited the property, but couldn’t move forward due to a lack of available funds, 3) Orcas Island Parks and Rec had interest, but ultimately had to stick with their primary focus on athletic fields. We arrived back at our tried-and-true formula; the Land Bank would take FEC ownership of the property with SJPT holding a conservation easement (CE). This is the structure that was proposed in the Land Bank’s project summary for the Land Bank budget, approved by the Land Bank Commission and the County Council.”
Friel looked into the communication breakdown, to see where things went sideways. The biggest issue took place on June 14, during the writing of the council resolution. Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Amy Vira worked with Bormann the previous day, but blank spots remained as Vira had several questions that still needed to be resolved.
On July 19, Vira told the council she had heard from the individual council members’ differing visions and intentions for the property, so she wanted to make sure with the resolution that everyone was on the same page.
“When we walked out of the room, I thought we were,” she said.
The Land Bank Commissioners wrote a letter to the council after their July 15 regular meeting recommending the council amend their resolution regarding affordable housing on the property. Vira recommended that the council amend the resolution per that letter. The council did not rule out making an amendment but wanted to meet with the SJPT first, to both apologize for the miscommunication and discuss how the county retaining two development areas would impact their grant. According to Friel, the area is zoned one house per five acres but believed there was potential for there to be a housing cluster of up to eight houses.
The San Juan County Land Bank is one of the few in the nation. While San Juan County voters implemented the organization in the 1990s, the statute that gives the organization its mandate is a state law.
RCW 82.46.070 states that the proceeds of the land bank tax shall be used exclusively for the acquisition and maintenance of concentration areas, and RCW 3632.570 states the term conservation area as meaning land and water that has environmental, agricultural, aesthetic, cultural, scientific, historic, scenic or low-intensity recreation value for existing and future generations, and includes but is not limited to open spaces, wetlands, marshes aquifer recharge areas, shoreline areas, natural areas, and other lands and waters that are important to preserve flora and fauna.
According to the lank bank commissioners, using land bank funds to support and manage affordable housing and development is against state law. Property could potentially be subdivided and sold to another agency, but Bormann pointed out in his letter that no other agencies were interested in that angle when approached a year ago. The property did not seem like an appropriate place for development.
“I want to fully support the land bank as a potential tool for housing — you made an attempt and they passed,” Justin Paulsen, of Orcas Island, told the commissioners during a special public meeting on July 28. “There is no water in that area.”
Peter Kilpatrick, of San Juan Island, has been involved in the county housing issues for decades and also agreed the property was not a good fit for affordable housing.
“It’s really a beautiful property. This is not the place,” he said.
Many public commenters thanked the land bank commissioners, Bormann and land bank staff for their efforts.
“Thank you for your hard work commissioners, Lincoln and your staff,” Barbara Sharp from San Juan Island said, adding that the county ordinance is quite clear that land bank properties can only be sold by the recommendation of the Land Bank Commissioners.
“It is indeed a sacred trust,” Sharp said of the land bank. “I hope things work out.”
July 19, after San Juan County Council member Cindy Wolf stated she was not comfortable with the Land Bank representatives meeting with the SJPT on behalf of the council, Vira and San Juan County Manager Mike Thomas were directed to schedule a meeting with the SJPT. That meeting was scheduled for July 29. As of press time, it is unclear what came of it. During the special meeting of the Land Bank Commissioners on July 28, however, the commissioners were vocal about being upset by the council excluding any Land Bank representation from the meeting.
“I am troubled that we are being rolled out of a meeting with our partner,” Land Bank Commissioner Mike Pickett said.
By the end of the meeting, it was agreed the best move forward would be to meet with the council and Deputy Prosecutor Jonathan Cain, who is usually assigned to land bank matters, in an attempt to work through the issues and move forward.
“Let’s try to make this into a positive instead of adversarial,” said Pickett.