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.