King County wants voters to approve a measure that would double the existing Conservation Futures levy to 6.25 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value to fund the preservation of forests, farmland, trails and rivers throughout the county.
Approving the levy would mean restoring the original authorized rate that fell due to state limitations on property tax growth.
This proposed levy lid lift would pencil out to an additional cost of $30 per year for a homeowner of a median-priced home assessed at about $820,000, according to Metropolitan King County Council staff. Currently, the owner of a median-priced home pays about $22 per year.
In June the council approved County Executive Dow Constantine’s proposal, sending King County Proposition 1 to the ballot in November. Councilmember Reagan Dunn was the lone opposition vote.
If approved, this rate would generate an estimated $269 million by 2031, according to council staff, which the county would use for land preservation. It would only be in place through calendar year 2023, assuming property values increase by 1% or more in subsequent years. The rate would then decline.
The Washington state Legislature created the Conservation Futures program in 1971, allowing counties to levy taxes to protect open land and natural spaces.
Since King County launched the tax in 1982, about 120,000 acres of open space have been protected. That includes the more than 3,000-acre Cougar Mountain Regional Wildland Park tucked between the Renton Highlands and Newcastle, and smaller community parks like the Ballard and Belltown P-Patches.
Recently, the program has helped protect marine shorelines on Vashon and Maury islands, undeveloped urban forest in White Center, dairy farms in Enumclaw, Soos Creek in Auburn, and land for a proposed South King County trail connecting Lake Washington to Puget Sound.
Conservation Futures is one of the county’s largest sources of money for the Land Conservation Initiative that calls for the preservation of another 65,000 acres. Most of the specific sites for the proposed conservation plans remain secret, Constantine has said, to avoid potential price increases if the county’s interest were to become public.
Much of the land that’s been preserved to date has been in rural and eastern parts of the county.
That’s largely left out communities bearing the brunt of the effects of extreme heat — exacerbated by the “heat island” effect. Heat islands are found in dense urban areas with limited green space and large amounts of impervious surfaces like concrete sidewalks and paved parking lots and roads.
A 2021 heat mapping study found “more urbanized areas” were up to 20 degrees hotter than less urbanized areas. Areas with more natural landscapes retained less heat.
King County officials say they want to commit additional funding to preserve urban parks and green spaces, especially for the county’s 500,000 residents who don’t live within a quarter-mile of one.
“Opportunity areas,” or spaces where households lack open-space access and simultaneously have the highest hospitalization rates and lowest incomes, are mapped out every year, said Heather Ramsay Ahndan, Land Conservation Initiatives program manager. This year, areas along highways near Federal Way, Tukwila, Kent and Burien were identified as priorities.
Other program goals include protecting mature forests, strengthening the local food economy, improving fish and wildlife habitats, and reducing flood risks.
Over the years, land values are bound to go up. Additional funding would allow the county to speed up the pace of acquisition, saving an estimated $15 billion “as compared with status quo pacing,” according to county officials.
The program today is generating about half the revenue it was originally designed to, according to Doug Williams, spokesperson for the county Department of Natural Resources and Parks. State law limits annual property tax increases to 1%, far below the rate of inflation.
As a result, the Conservation Futures tax rate has declined by almost half while property values have increased. The program can’t keep the pace the county is hoping for as property values of the “last, best” open spaces rise.
In addition, three years ago, the County Council allowed the county to sell bonds based on 80% of projected Conservation Futures Tax revenue, rather than 50%, meaning a bigger chunk of upfront money for conservation projects.
Now, roughly half of the program’s proceeds are being used to pay debt service, according to County Council staff.
The inflation the county cites as a concern for reaching conservation goals is the same concern opponents have.
“I don’t believe this is the year for a new tax increase for conservation futures,” Councilmember Dunn said. “I think the dramatic increase in inflation, the cost of rent and mortgages going up, and the price of gas means that this is a year where we should give taxpayers a break from new ballot initiatives.”
For Carnation resident Michael Fisette, 64, who helped author the opposition statement, the concern is where the need for land stops. He said he enjoys the county’s existing open spaces, but doesn’t see the need for urgency.
Fisette, a financial planner, said his clients already pay tens of thousands in property taxes.
“How much more do you need and what good is that gonna do?” he said.
The King County measure has support from elected officials including the mayors of Kirkland, Duvall, Redmond and Sammamish. It’s been backed by a plethora of nonprofits, community organizations and companies interested in outdoor recreation and conservation like the Green River Coalition, Mountains to Sound Greenway and The Nature Conservancy.
“Forest lands for climate resilience, open-space acquisition for recreation, clean water and clean air that comes from natural and working landscapes, and addressing that sort of urgency of pressure that’s coming from the changes from climate and population increases,” Justin Allegro, policy director for The Nature Conservancy in Washington, said of the organization’s reasons for supporting the measure.
The committee Conserve our Future King County has received over $300,000 in contributions as of this week. Of that, over $24,000 comes from property management, real estate and construction interests.
Among the top donors, making up $50,000, are Amazon, Microsoft and Forterra, the land preservation organization.
Forterra has received contracts worth up to $12 million from King County in the last three years, mostly via Conservation Futures. The company gave $15,000 and the chief external relations officer gave an additional $1,000.
The campaign spent over $40,000 on campaign flyers and mailers.
Ballots were mailed last week. They can be returned by mail — no stamp required — or by using one of the county’s drop boxes. Ballots must be postmarked by Election Day to be counted.
Material from The Seattle Times archives was included in this report.