Letters

Fact Check of Whalen Petition

Dear Editor and Community,

We recently received in the mail Mr. Ron Whalen’s request to have us sign a petition to eliminate the Land Bank by December 2020. The request was loaded with falsehoods and outrageously attempted to dupe our community into thinking that a yes or no answer meant something other than to put the petition on the fall ballot. Please note that whether you mark yes or no on the petition, it qualifies as a vote to put the measure on the ballot.

First, the Real Estate Excise Tax (REET) that funds San Juan County’s Conservation Land Bank is paid once by the purchaser of property in San Juan County. It is among the fairest of taxes since you pay once when you purchase, and the funds are used to protect the quality of life and values that attracted you to live here. By paying the 1% tax you bought into the community’s beauty, history and values as evidenced in the Land Bank’s Mandate, which is to

“preserve in perpetuity areas in the county that have environmental, agricultural, aesthetic, cultural, scientific, historic, scenic or low-intensity recreational value and to protect existing and future sources of potable water.”

Mr. Whalen may not approve of this mandate, but it is what was passed by the citizens of San Juan County as their priorities. To fulfill this mandate the Land Bank has purchased lands that protect agricultural uses (such as King Sisters Preserve and Coffelt Farms) not remove them as Mr. Whalen purports. Acquired lands also protect watersheds (such as land protecting Friday Harbor’s water supply), areas with important cultural and scenic value to the community (such as Turtleback Mountain, Mount Grant, Lopez Hill and many more), and it has funded initiatives such as the Salish Seed Project that strive to preserve our unique native wildflower communities. All these acquisitions and endeavors are in complete alignment with the Land Bank Mandate approved by voters each time it has come up for renewal.

Mr. Whalen claims the Land Bank has removed $60 million worth of property off the tax rolls and therefore your property taxes are significantly higher. This is complete nonsense. Just a little bit of research (or maybe, dare I say, reading the annual report the Land Bank provides our community) would have revealed to Mr. Whalen that 75% of Land Bank purchases have been properties where little or no tax was currently paid because they are already in San Juan County and state tax reduction programs such as designated forest land or agricultural land. The total value of taxable real estate in the County is over $7.5 billion. Theoretically, selling off all Land Bank Preserves could save a taxpayer owning a $500,000 property about $15 per year in property taxes. I think one day spent on a Land Bank preserve would make that a paltry sum to spend each year for the joy and renewal received. Not everyone enjoys owning a lot of land they can hike and enjoy nature on, and not everyone can look or walk out their door and enjoy the views and wildlife of Zylstra Lake as Mr. Whalen can. The Land Bank’s efforts make the joys and healing of nature available to anyone no matter what their income status.

Regarding administrative costs. If Mr. Whalen had read the Land Bank ordinance, he would have seen that, by law, the Land Bank must keep administrative costs under 10% of its revenues. In fact, over the history of the program administrative costs have averaged around 6% of revenue. These expenditures include salaries of people doing administrative work, technology, office supplies, producing and mailing an annual report, and a variety of other tasks.

Mr. Whalen also accuses the Land Bank of not doing due diligence for property acquisitions and cites ongoing disputes with a minority of neighbors. Without question most neighbors of Land Bank Preserves are supportive and have enjoyed the higher value their property has being adjacent to a permanently protected landscape.

Unfortunately, there is ongoing litigation with two neighbors disputing the County’s right to use road easements to access Land Bank owned preserves. In both cases, the Land Bank purchased the subject property prior to the neighbor and the court has ruled in both cases that such access is allowed.

I don’t know how Mr. Whalen can characterize the Land Bank as the bully in these situations. Isn’t the real bully the persons, who over many years, have wasted public resources to litigate the Land Bank when they should have done their due diligence regarding being a neighbor to an existing public preserve?

I hope Mr. Whalen gets his facts straight and I hope he stops trying to dupe our community with falsehoods and deceptive initiatives. It isn’t respectful.

Sincerely,
Amanda Azous

Posted on June 7, 2020 at 4:56 pm by

Categories: Community, Environment, Government, Letters, Nature, Opinion, People, Recreation
6 comments:

6 comments...

  1. My husband & I walk on Land Bank trails almost every day all year & are very grateful they’re here. They add a lot to the quality of life in San Juan County, it would be much poorer without them. 2nd & 3rd homes already represent over 40% of the homes in the county so I’m happy the Land Bank is preserving some of our beautiful land for the use of everyone instead of letting them go to profit a few. I recognized Ron Whalen’s “petition” for what it is & threw it away.

    Comment by Robin Blair on June 8, 2020 at 8:38 am
  2. I am lucky enough to live near a Land Bank property with great trails and overlooks, and I love spending time there. Having access to this, for myself and others, is well worth the trivial impact on my property taxes. Unfortunately, a beautiful area like our county will always attract wealthy retirees and investors, developers, absentee owners, etc. who have little real desire to give anything back to the community or to be any active part of it.

    Comment by S. Marshall on June 8, 2020 at 9:35 am
  3. I’ve always loved hiking and enjoying Trails on Land Bank property over the years. They have been nothing but positive for me and I ‘m glad they are there for islanders to use for their enjoyment as well as protecting necessary wildlife habitat and watersheds. Thank you, Amanda, for putting the numbers along with all the physical positives that we all already know the Land Bank provides.

    Comment by Erick D on June 8, 2020 at 9:08 pm
  4. Thanks Amanda for a very honest, informative and researched response to the current deceptive petition.

    Comment by L. Lawrence on June 9, 2020 at 10:02 am
  5. Dear Fellow Readers,

    She’s at it again! During my fifteen year exposure to Ms. Azous, her public platitudes have increasingly been revealed to me to be disingenuous and purely tactical. This letter, her most recent pro bono public relations effort, is no exception.

    Notwithstanding Mr. Whalen’s effort, what is “not respectful” to our community is Amanda’s innuendo and carefully crafted disinformation.

    Here is but one obvious example:

    “Unfortunately, there is ongoing litigation with two neighbors disputing the County’s right to use road easements to access Land Bank owned preserves. In both cases, the Land Bank purchased the subject property prior to the neighbor and the court has ruled in both cases that such access is allowed.”

    Of the two “ongoing litigation” cases, only one involves the use of private road easements; the other deals with the use of water access. Amanda is not at all confused about this, but she needs to lay the false premise to make way for the rest of her equally misleading hit job. In both of the cases she attempts to reference (one ongoing – Mt. Grant, one dismissed – Mt. Ben), the access remains restricted by court ruling.

    In the case of Mt. Ben, the Land Bank cannot demonstrate FIRST (as EMPHATICALLY required in the court’s ruling) that it has met the clear short plat requirements for any use other than residential development.

    The minimum circulation requirements for public access cannot be met without significant investment up front to make safe the full mile of private road. They would also have to construct additional roadway, parking and circulation within the private short plat, enough for first responders to safely operate within the county property.

    That is why they now “prefer” (quoting Lincoln Bormann) public access by pedestrian trail, originating at the county road and via Westside Preserve. In choosing to open that trail, they knowingly forfeit use of the private road easements for access to any location beyond the short plat (per Amaro Case ruling).

    As for the claim that the Land Bank purchased their property before the neighbors at Mt. Ben… False. For a dozen years, when it served their purpose, the Land Bank insisted they did not purchase the property, but instead received a gift.

    What they did do to benefit the seller greatly for tax purposes was to purchase an easement in the very last days of 2004 and then, subsequently, accept a gift of the remainder fee interest merely two weeks later in 2005. The transfer of title to the county followed our recorded purchase at Mt. Ben, A Private Short Plat.

    So the truth is that we acquired our property first and there was no disclosure to us or our sellers that the Land Bank would exempt itself from all requirements to simply declare the private short plat open for the general public to explore, unsupervised. Again, the preserve is located a full mile beyond the county road.

    Through personal involvement, I understand all too well how Amanda would have the public internalize her propaganda. She’s the very last person to be calling out bullies. This is not community leadership. At best it is habitual self-aggrandizement.

    Does anyone else wonder how San Juan County Employees (@Land Bank) can so openly endorse Amanda Azous’s personal attacks upon its neighboring land owners?

    Jim Higgins
    San Juan Island

    Comment by Jim Higgins on June 9, 2020 at 12:51 pm
  6. We LOVE the Landbank and enjoy the use of a Landbank property daily. Thank you!

    Comment by Melonie & Chris on June 12, 2020 at 11:17 am

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