King County plans to buy or preserve 5,000 acres of forest, farmland, trails and urban green space by the end of next year, part of a decadeslong effort to protect the region’s open spaces from development.
The county plans to spend $64 million preserving 61 individual projects, county Executive Dow Constantine said. Just two of those projects are finalized — for the others, the county is in various stages of negotiations with the current landowners so they can’t be publicly announced yet, county officials said.
But planned projects range from wooded slopes of Cougar Mountain to marine shoreline on Vashon and Maury islands, from stretches along Bear Creek and the Green River to 24 patches of potential parkland in urban areas like White Center that may be lacking in green space. There are patches of forestland, farmland and trail extensions and connections.
“We’re preserving the things people love most about this region in a way that can be passed on to future generations,” Constantine said. “We have to protect these things before they’re gone.”
The purchases require the approval of the Metropolitan King County Council, but the council already approved the framework of the plan to expand the county’s protection of public space.
Some of the projects will involve the county actually buying the land, while in some other cases, the county will buy easements that will forever prohibit development, preserving the land as open space.
Many of the 61 projects will require a matching contribution from a city or special-purpose district they’re located in, meaning the total public investment will be a little over $100 million, rather than the announced $64 million. The match requirement is waived for projects in low-income areas with little access to green space.
The projects are largely funded by the county’s Conservation Futures Tax, a property tax of about 3.8 cents per $1,000 in valuation that’s been in place since 1982, and which collected about $18.6 million last year. About $11 million of the $64 million planned for acquisitions is contingent on voter approval of the county’s expanded parks levy in August.
The county has long used the Conservation Futures Tax to acquire and protect open space, but the new push represents the first step of a new initiative, proposed by Constantine last year and approved by the County Council, to speed up the process before ever-soaring property costs make some acquisitions impossible.
“This represents a more-than tripling of recent years’ activity,” said Bob Burns, deputy director of King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks. “We should be able to sustain this tripling of the pace for the foreseeable future.”
The new ordinance lets the county sell bonds based on 80 percent of projected Conservation Futures Tax revenue, rather than 50 percent, meaning a bigger chunk of upfront money for conservation projects.
Ultimately, the county hopes to preserve 65,000 acres over the next 30 years, rather than the 75-year trajectory that it had been on before the bonding change.
The county has used the Conservation Futures Tax to protect about 110,000 acres over the last several decades, including high-profile parcels around Snoqualmie Falls and the land that became Cougar Mountain Regional Wildland Park.
“We’ve got a lot of great lands that have been acquired, and we’re trying to connect them,” Constantine said. “We’re trying to piece the jigsaw puzzle together.”