Clallam commissioners mull new tax aimed at preservation

Proposal intended to secure farmland, open spaces, water access

The Clallam County commissioners will likely approve a new property tax this month that would support the preservation of farmland, open spaces and public access to water in Clallam County.

A hearing on the adoption of a Conservation Futures program is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Nov. 12 at the Clallam County Courthouse.

Commissioner Randy Johnson has championed the effort with support from Commissioner Mark Ozias. Commissioner Bill Peach expressed reluctance to pass a new tax, but said he is neutral and may abstain in a vote.

Under state law, the Board of County Commissioners has the authority to pass — without a vote of the people — a property tax to create a fund that is used to purchase development rights to preserve farms, agricultural land, park land, open areas and public access to water.

The current draft of the ordinance would set a levy at $0.0275 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, which Johnson said would raise about $250,000 each year. That would be an additional $6.88 per year for a home valued at $250,000.

Johnson told the Port Angeles Business Association on Oct. 29 that the tax is needed so the county can preserve what’s left of Clallam County farmland.

“If you go back to the 30s there were about 70,000 acres of farmland in this county,” Johnson said. “Today there are 17,000 acres of farmland in this county.”

He said Skagit County has a Conservation Futures program and has preserved more than 12,000 acres of farmland since 1996.

He held the Dungeness Valley Creamery in Sequim as an example, which had its development rights purchased by the North Olympic Land Trust in 2008.

“We’re looking at their 40 acres they have,” Johnson said. “The owner was about ready to retire and what asset did he have? The only real asset he had was the land he had.”

When a land owner receives a payment from the Conservation Future program, that property owner still owns the land and is required to pay property tax. The only restriction is that the land must continue to be a farm.

Officials said that tax could be used to secure matching dollars from other organizations that share the same mission.

Johnson said that the draft still needs some work before it’s approved and said it would be changed to include open spaces.

Department of Community Development Director Mary Ellen Winborn said during last week’s Port Angeles Business Association meeting that the tax could do more than just preserve farmland.

“It could be so much broader than preserving farmland,” she said. “One of the reasons people come out here is because it’s beautiful.”

She urged Johnson to include language about open space and habitat restoration.

If approved, the county would also create a Conservation Futures Program Advisory Board. The current draft says the board would have seven voting members, including a representative from the Clallam Conservation District, the North Olympic Land Trust, one citizen from each commissioner district and two citizen-at-large members.

The draft also includes language that would require commissioners to re-examine in 10 years how effective the program is.

Later that morning during the Board of County Commissioners meeting, Winborn suggested that the board also include a representative from her department and a tribal representative.

Ozias said he “very much agrees” with those suggestions.

Ozias said during an interview that he and Johnson have heard “loud and clear” that while the tax could be used to preserve other types of property, what most people support is preserving working farmland.

“That is very much the way Commissioner Johnson and I feel,” Ozias said. “We have a rapidly closing window in which to try to maintain a viable agricultural community.”

Peach said he likes some of the recommendations he’s hearing, but he sees a need for clarification and that he has concerns the money raised could “get diverted to other interests.”

Peach said having the focus be on farm preservation is a “good idea.”

“I do not support increased taxes period,” Peach said. “I raise my hand to the issue of taxes and ask the other two commissioners to think about the impact on the citizens.”

Peach said he has heard support on the West End for the proposal, making him more likely to abstain or be neutral on the vote.

“I want to listen,” he said. “If I hear a lot of people that are strongly objecting to the proposal, I’ll take it on board. The same as if a lot of people are saying we must do this.

“I don’t see anything proposed that cares for the person that is living on a fixed income and that is of concern to me.”