Both interest rates and land prices are at historically low levels. Snohomish County Councilmember Dave Gossett presented a plan to leverage the current low interest rates to greatly expand the preservation of open space within Snohomish County at the January 15, 2013 meeting of the Conservation Futures Advisory Board.
The Snohomish County Conservation Futures Advisory Board oversees the distribution of Conservation Futures Property Tax Funds to acquire interest or rights in real property for the preservation of open space land, farm and agricultural land, and timberland.
Total revenue from property taxes for the Snohomish County Conservation Futures Fund is about $3.5 million per year. Roughly $1.9 million is used for debt service, $500,000 is used for maintenance of already acquired property, and $1.1 million is left for new projects.
Each year Snohomish County Parks receives applications for funding from interested parties who then present their applications to the Conservation Futures Advisory Board for review.
The Board consists of the County Executive (or designee); two members of the County Council (Councilmembers Dave Somers and Stephanie Wright); one elected official representing cities with a population of 10,000 or greater; one elected official representing cites with a population less than 10,000; and two members representing citizens of Snohomish County.
"In 1996 citizens were concerned that prime land for conservation was being lost to development," said Councilmember Gossett. "The county sold $24 million worth of bonds which allowed it to make major purchases of property. Thirty-eight projects were funded including Robe Canyon, Thrasher's Corner, parts of the Centennial Trail, Narbeck wetlands, and Meadowdale Beach/Lund's Gulch."
Councilmember Gossett proposes doing a similar bond now of approximately $21-25 million. The precise amount would be determined in consultation with bond counsel. The $1.1 million available each year would pay interest only for the first five years, with the payments on principal beginning in 2017 when the original bonds are paid off. The new debt service amount would be roughly equal to the current $1.9 million a year.
The proposal does not require any tax increases. Existing taxes, which by law can only be used for conservation purposes, would be used.
"If we wait until 2018, three things are likely to happen," noted Gossett. "Land prices will go back up, interest rates will go up, and property our citizens would like to preserve will be developed. By acting now we can enhance the conservation of open space in a fiscally responsible way."
According to Councilmember Gossett the Conservation Futures Advisory Board expressed interest in the concept. He said Snohomish County will continue to work with the board and bond counsel to finalize a proposal. Any proposal would include an application process for proposed projects.
"I think it possible to be funding major new conservation purchases by the end of the year," said Gossett. "This would be a great legacy to leave our children and grandchildren."