San Juan Land Bank seeks $4 million in grants

The San Juan County Land Bank is pursuing $4 million in state grants, $1.5 million of which would be a reimbursement for money spent to buy Turtleback Mountain.

The San Juan County Land Bank is pursuing $4 million in state grants, $1.5 million of which would be a reimbursement for money spent to buy Turtleback Mountain.

The grants would come from the state Recreation and Conservation Office, which a year ago doled out $100 million in grants for conservation and recreation purposes.

If approved, the Land Bank would receive $300,000 to purchase an easement on the former Otto Kjaargard farm on Lopez Island; $1.1 million to purchase eight acres of land, tideland and a log boom on Judd Cove, Orcas Island; and $1 million for potential purchase of 300-plus acres of wetland on Beaverton Valley Road on San Juan Island. It’s the largest wetland in the county; the Land Bank owns 130 adjacent wetland acres.

Tuesday, the County Council unanimously approved the Land Bank’s pursuit of the grants. Previously, the council endorsed its recently-crafted habitat conservation plan, a lynchpin in qualifying for several categories of Conversation Office grants.

The plan will help guide the agency in determining which properties are most deserving of protection based on unique ecological features. It identifies 17 priority areas and focuses on preserving habitat rather than considering properties for possible protection in a piecemeal approach.

While the council approved the plan, several members expressed concern that the public didn’t have adequate time to provide input. Its completion and public airing had been fast-tracked after the Land Bank learned late in the game of several planning steps required of the habitat plan.

However, Land Bank Director Lincoln Bormann said the agency tried to collect as much input as possible given the limited amount time it had to craft the plan and meet a looming July 10 application deadline. He noted that it had been “vetted” before the public on three separate occasions.

In addition, he added that the plan had been aired before the council and a standing-room-only crowd of islanders during a break in the debate over the controversial and now-defunct aquatic reserver proposal. The agency, he added, received zero complaints following that presentation.

Without the plan, Bormann said, the agency would have had to forego a potential reimbursement of the Turtleback Mountain purchase as well as bolstered protection of its Beaverton Valley Marsh property on San Juan Island.

“All this does is set out priorities based on ecological criteria for the Land Bank’s possible protection,” he said.

Councilman Alan Lichter, Orcas West, questioned whether the grants, if awarded, would demand limits on recreational uses — and on Turtleback in particular — beyond what islanders would tolerate.

“I’m no longer impressed to be getting a lot of money,” Lichter said. “I’m more concerned about accountability and about the type of obligations we’d have.”

In response, Bormann said that none of the grants would force the Land Bank do anything beyond what it normally does in determining how to best manage and protect its preserves or ban recreational uses on Turtleback where appropriate.

Councilman Bob Myhr, Lopez/Shaw, shrugged off the lack of public comment and, unlike his colleagues, defended both the plan and the agency’s efforts.

“We have to recognize there’s a steamroller coming at us and it’s been coming at us for a number of years,” Myhr said. “The more we can do to protect these islands, the better off we’re all going to be in the long run.”