Dow Constantine unveils his proposed conservation initiative at a press conference in Tukwila. (Courtesy Photo)

Dow Constantine unveils his proposed conservation initiative at a press conference in Tukwila. (Courtesy Photo)

County proposes extensive conservation program

Legislation King County Executive Dow Constantine presented to the King County Council last Wednesday to preserve more than 65,000 acres of land was informed by an advisory group that included Tom Dean, executive director of the Vashon-Maury Island Land Trust.

If passed, the ordinance will permit the county to use $148 million, generated over four years by the sale of bonds, to preserve natural lands, trails, forests, farms and shorelines. The value of the bonds would be derived from revenue collected through the Conservation Futures property tax program.

Last week, Dean talked about the work behind the new legislation.

“The Executive pulled together some leadership and a broad representation of people around the county for the advisory committee,” he said. “It included other conservation groups, city governments, tribes, business sectors and just a broad range of representatives, but mostly people who understood conservation, what that work was, and who could contribute to that level from a place of knowledge of how that work gets done. I was representing Vashon conservation, in terms of having that piece of the puzzle, to add with everyone else’s.”

The advisory group’s final report, released in December, made recommendations about 5,400 parcels of land to be preserved, helping to refine the county’s targets for approaching the conservation work that Constantine called “a race against time,” according to a recent county press release.

Dean said that he believes conservation work on Vashon could translate well to this new effort.

“A lot of what we’ve done on Vashon is trying to piece parcels together over time,” he said. “I do think our patience and our vision for putting the puzzle together here could be a model for other places in King County.”

Certain pressures, such as exponential population growth during the last several decades and inequitable access to green spaces, continue to bear down on neighborhoods and cities throughout King County, Dean said. To meet the county’s goals while facing these challenges, city officials and King County staff met more than 70 times last year to identify acquisition priorities, according to the advisory group report. Those priorities include lake shore forests and trails used by the public for 50 years at the Weyerhaeuser Campus of Federal Way, the Enumclaw Forested Foothills, which would connect to the Tomanamus Forest near the Enumclaw Transfer Station and a half-acre of grass and trees surrounded by lower-income apartments where Constantine’s press conference was held in Tukwila — land that would provide a place for local children to play.

The Conservation Futures property tax was enacted in 1982 and is the cornerstone of a program by the same name. Recently, the Vashon Golf & Swim Club sold its development rights to the county under this program, entering a portion of the property into a permanent, protected easement.

Dean said that he is optimistic that the King County Council will approve Constantine’s proposed ordinance, believing the sale of bonds secured by the tax is the best funding strategy compared to earlier proposed options to fund the conservation work ahead.

“I think it’s easier for the council members to get on board with this,” he said. “It actually gets us off to a faster start because it can be enacted right away by the council. Now that the council has it in front of them, it can enact this any day, and that would mean the initiative would be under way.”

Adding concerns the advisory group and Constantine have expressed, islander Greg Rabourn, Vashon’s watershed steward for King County, believes that now is the time to conserve the parcels before the county is priced out of doing so.

“The part that I’m really excited about is trying to front load as many of these property purchases as we can,” he said. “We’re all seeing property prices go up and up and up. As that occurs, not only do we see these green spaces become less available, but we also will see it become more expensive to purchase properties.”

Rabourn, who is responsible for restoring and safeguarding habitat on Vashon and Maury Islands, believes Constantine’s initiative is much more egalitarian than how it may appear to skeptics.

“I think that many of our projects on Vashon are regional, as are our projects on the mainland. A lot of times people think, for example, that we’re protecting marine shoreline on Vashon, for Vashon, but no — we’re protecting it for Puget Sound,” he said. “The projects might create a marine aquatic reserve in someone’s neighborhood, but those are regional projects. One of the components that is really exciting about the Land Conservation Initiative is that it will be giving some of these green spaces to neighborhoods that don’t have them. There are direct connections between health and green spaces, and giving these spaces for people who don’t have access to them is very important. I think many islanders would say first hand what having ample green space does for your wellbeing.”

The advisory group took measured efforts to connect accelerated conservation with the most urgent challenges facing King County, namely affordability, making the case that protecting lands, forests and shorelines is part of a greater solution that depends on cooperation and a new approach to housing.

“If the region is to significantly and rapidly increase the supply of housing, then we need to ensure new dwelling units are built in neighborhoods where people across all incomes levels will enjoy living,” they wrote. “These neighborhoods need to be where everyone chooses to live because they want to, not because they are forced to out of economic necessity. This initiative targets investments in neighborhoods lacking basic open space infrastructure. It will broaden the areas of housing desirability beyond those that exist today. To succeed, these investments need to be paired with smart, affordable housing policies and participation of the community to ensure existing residents are not displaced.”

Dean believes that it’s clear how essential the work of the initiative will become.

“I think what we’re talking about here is saving the best of what’s left,” he said. “That means that it’s almost obvious what needs to be done. There’s not that much left, really. I think the executive’s decision for making King County livable into the future, and making sure we preserve that livability, is what’s really important here.”

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