A proposal to raise property taxes to fund preservation of forests, farmland, trails and rivers throughout King County is almost certainly headed to voters in November, following the unanimous approval of a Metropolitan King County Council committee Wednesday.
The Council’s Budget and Fiscal Management Committee passed the proposal, which would double the rate of the county’s Conservation Futures levy, by a vote of 7-0, sending it to the full council where passage looks assured.
Of the County Council’s nine members, only Councilmember Reagan Dunn has publicly opposed the proposal.
The proposal, from King County Executive Dow Constantine, aims to protect the region’s “last, best” natural spaces, by either buying them to put them under public control or negotiating easements to forestall development.
The levy would double from its current rate of 3.12 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value to 6.25 cents. That would amount to an additional $30 a year or so, on average, through 2031 for the owner of a median-priced home assessed at about $820,000, according to a report from council staff.
This would bring in an estimated additional $269 million by 2031, according to council staff, which the county would use for land preservation.
Washington established the Conservation Futures program in 1971, allowing counties to levy taxes to protect open land and natural spaces. King County has used the tax since 1982; 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.
Over the past decade, the county has used about $136 million in Conservation Futures funding to purchase 7,700 acres of open-space lands, according to county staff.
But, largely thanks to the state’s 1% cap on property tax increases, the tax rate has declined as property values have increased, leaving a funding gap.
County officials have said they’ve already designated an additional 65,000 acres of trails, river corridors, farmland, forest, urban green space and natural land for preservation. But, Constantine has said, without the funding boost it would take a century to acquire or protect all of it.
“We may not have 100 years to protect the 65,000 acres because every month that goes by, there’s less of them to protect,” Councilmember Rod Dembowski said. And the longer it takes to acquire or protect a parcel of land, he said, the more expensive it typically becomes, as property values inch ever skyward.
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 became public.
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 conservation efforts. Greater bonding, though, comes with a cost: Currently, roughly half of the program’s proceeds are being used to pay debt service, according to County Council staff.
The program’s goals include providing equitable outdoors access, particularly to the county’s 500,000 residents who don’t live near a park or green space; protecting mature forests; strengthening the local food economy; improving fish and wildlife habitats; and reducing flood risks.
Some of the land protected by the conservation program in recent years includes marine shoreline on Vashon and Maury islands; 5 acres of 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.