Land bank rejects ultimatum from Coffelt Farm Stewards | Guest Column

Land bank rejects ultimatum from Coffelt Farm Stewards | Guest Column

Submitted by the San Juan County Land Bank.

At its monthly public meeting on March 15 in Friday Harbor, the San Juan County Land Bank Commission denied a request for $1,225,000 in new and upgraded infrastructure at Coffelt Farm, a 189-acre county-owned agricultural preserve on Orcas. The lion’s share of the ask – and what the commissioners objected to unanimously – consisted of $950,000 for a new 3,600-square-foot building with commercial kitchen, office, classroom space for 36 people and three apartments with full kitchens.

The request for the pricey package was made three weeks earlier from the farm’s operator, the non-profit Coffelt Farm Stewards in the form of an ultimatum: agree or else CFS would close its 501c3 organization and cease farm operations.

CFS stipulated the land bank had just one week to issue a letter of intent to fully fund the request, and one month to include the expenditure in an amended land bank budget.

Despite the short deadline, the commission responded with a letter of intent sent to CFS on March 1, expressing its commitment to invest in agricultural infrastructure for the farm – including new fencing, water system upgrades, and manure management facilities – along with a willingness to have conversations with CFS about how worker housing needs could be met. The letter stopped short of committing to the large multi-purpose building, though, noting the commission would need time to investigate more cost-effective options, including utilizing existing structures and finding additional sources of funding.

The land bank’s letter of intent and invitation for further discussions of options went unanswered by CFS. Presented only with an all-or-nothing ultimatum for consideration at the commission meeting, the commissioners ultimately denied the request in its entirety.

“The situation is truly unfortunate,” said Land Bank Director Lincoln Bormann. “The land bank has been willing to invest – and has invested – in infrastructure, particularly to improve agricultural operations and soil health, and we’ve shown we’re more than willing to discuss all manner of options with CFS. However, the CFS Board left no room for negotiation and instead created a ‘yes or no’ scenario.”

To date, the land bank has invested more than $1.4 million in acquisition costs and an estimated $240,000 in infrastructure and staff time at Coffelt Farm.

According to Bormann, when the land bank completed its purchase of the farm in 2011, it elected to have a newly formed non-profit Coffelt Farm Stewards manage the property. The farm’s prior owners, the Coffelts, donated all of their farm animals, equipment and farm vehicles to CFS. Bormann says that he and the then commissioners had envisioned that CFS, utilizing those assets along with an established customer base, extensive infrastructure such as barns, a farm foreman’s house, farmstand, compost facility, large market garden area and expansive fields, plus having no lease payment, would be able to steward and sustain the farm, especially with a non-profit’s added ability to fundraise.

“Unfortunately, that hope hasn’t been realized,” says Bormann. He says that CFS has needed substantial cash infusions from its board members and has been on the brink of dissolution on several occasions.

Bormann says hope was renewed last July when a promising new CFS board signed a two-year rent-free lease, with the understanding both parties would work together toward a longer-term lease. The lease specified the property was offered “as is” and contained a provision for CFS to request capital expenditures by each September to enable the land bank to include items in its annual budget.

Bormann said no such request was made by CFS in 2018, and in fact, the new CFS board continued to provide positive progress updates to the commission until mid-February, when CFS issued an annual report describing dire circumstances at the farm. Representatives of the land bank met with CFS on Feb. 22, 2019, to review the findings, and it was then that CFS issued its $1.225 million list of infrastructure requirements along with the announcement that the board had voted the prior day to disband CFS unless all demands were met.

Bormann says the land bank remains firmly committed to Coffelt Farm as a valuable public asset and will be immediately investigating options for its future management as well as following through on some of the needed improvements.

“We envision a vibrant sustainable farm continuing to provide local food to the community and we’ll work diligently toward achieving this goal,” he said.

Once things settle down, Bormann anticipates a robust community engagement process focused on the future vision for the farm, adding that the publicity surrounding this latest twist has spurred several people to come forth with creative ideas for consideration.

“We might end up with something better than we all could’ve imagined,” he said.