King County Executive Dow Constantine announced a proposal Thursday to raise property taxes to fund the preservation of forests, farmland, trails and rivers throughout the county, billing it as an effort to protect the region’s “last, best” natural spaces.
The proposal, which requires the approval of the Metropolitan King County Council and county voters, aims to conserve 65,000 acres of open space over the next 30 years.
It would be funded by an increase to an existing property tax levy — the 50-year-old Conservation Futures program. The levy would be doubled from its rate of 3.12 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value to 6.25 cents. That would amount to about an additional $22 a year for the owner of median-price home, assessed at about $694,000, Constantine’s office said.
If approved by the County Council, the proposal would go on the November ballot.
“This is our generation’s moment to protect the last, best places — forests, trails, rivers, farmland and green space — before they are lost forever,” Constantine said. “By accelerating land conservation throughout King County, we will confront climate change by protecting mature forests, improve habitat for native salmon, strengthen our local food economy, provide more recreational opportunities, and ensure more equitable access to the outdoors.”
Constantine called the proposed tax increase a “pretty light lift for the average homeowner.”
Washington established the Conservation Futures program in 1971, allowing counties to levy taxes in order to protect open land and natural spaces. In King County it has helped protect more than 100,000 acres of natural land, including high-profile parcels around Snoqualmie Falls and the land that became Cougar Mountain Regional Wildland Park.
But, largely thanks to the state’s 1% cap on property tax increases, the tax rate has declined as property values have increased, Constantine’s office said, leaving a funding gap.
County Councilmember Reagan Dunn, part of a one- or two-member conservative minority on the nine-member County Council, called the proposal “tone deaf” as residents are already dealing with surging inflation and high gas prices.
“We cannot again raise taxes on King County residents who are already struggling to make ends meet,” Dunn said. “A new property tax in particular would raise costs for homeowners and renters alike, even as so many are more vulnerable than ever to losing their housing.”
The County Council three years ago made a change allowing it to sell bonds based on a greater percentage of the tax, thus allowing it to get more money upfront and speed up conservation efforts. It also allows the county to protect land before it gets developed and before real estate prices spiral even higher.
The county uses a variety of strategies to conserve land, Constantine said. Most obviously, officials buy it, putting it under full public control. But they also use a variety of easements that preserve lands and forestall development even as the land remains privately owned.
The 65,000 acres proposed for protection are divided into six categories: trails, river corridors, farmland, forest, urban green space and natural land. The goals, Constantine’s office said, are several: provide equitable outdoors access, particularly to the county’s 500,000 residents who don’t live near a park or green space; protect mature forests; strengthen the local food economy; improve fish and wildlife habitats; and reduce flood risks.
Some of the land proposed for conservation includes marine shoreline on Vashon and Maury islands, 5 acres of undeveloped urban forest in White Center, the slopes of Tiger Mountain, dairy farms in Enumclaw, Soos Creek in Auburn and a proposed South King County trail connecting Lake Washington to Puget Sound.
But some of the proposed conservation plans remain secret, Constantine said, to avoid potential price increases if the county’s interest became public.
“Coupled with higher land prices, the chance to protect these treasured open spaces before they are paved over is evaporating before our eyes,” County Councilmember Rod Dembowski said. “It is imperative that we accelerate our efforts now to ensure King County remains the envy of the country for our parks, trails, farms, lakes and rivers for generations to come.”
A previous version of this story misstated the year Washington established the Conservation Futures program. It was established in 1971.