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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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County seeking nominations for conservation lands

Spokane County is looking for some wide open spaces.

The county is reopening the Conservation Futures program to land nominations for the first time in two years.

The goal of the taxpayer-supported program is to protect areas from development and preserve them for future generations.

The nomination process calls for accepting applications through May 2. After reviewing the applications and touring the sites, the Parks Advisory Committee’s lands subcommittee is scheduled to evaluate the nominated properties and make recommendations to county commissioners by August.

Properties are judged on their size, what sorts of habitat they provide, whether the owner will sell, the need to preserve open space where they are located, public support of their purchase and the ability of the public to access them.

The Conservation Futures program relies on its voter-approved tax revenue and willing property sellers.

Spokane County voters have approved the property tax – $6 per $100,000 valuation – three times, enabling the county to buy about 4,000 acres over the past 10 years, said Steve Horobiowski, Spokane County’s parks planner.

Of the 11 properties selected in 2003 as priorities for acquisition, four have been purchased, four are pending purchase and three have dropped off the list, Horobiowski said.

Most recently, the county bought 421 acres at Newman Lake.

The Parks Department has been able to leverage some Conservation Futures funds with state grants.

Maintaining the properties has been made possible in large part by the sellers, who often donate part of their sale proceeds back to the county.

State law doesn’t allow the use of Conservation Futures funds for maintenance, so without the donations the county would have to tap monies used to keep up other parks.

But Commissioners Phil Harris and Mark Richard said that they are uncomfortable with past wording suggesting that sellers donate 8 percent of the purchase price.

Harris likened it to “extortion.”

Some state lawmakers are trying to change the Conservation Futures law to allow up to 25 percent to be used for maintenance and operations of conservation properties, which would make it less critical to solicit donations from property sellers.

Harris also expressed some concerns about whether Conservation Futures properties are being assessed at values higher than neighboring properties and if the program is buying land that wouldn’t or can’t be developed anyway.

He cited an example near the Little Spokane River, where the property owner was able to cluster higher density development on one portion of his land in exchange for leaving the rest of it open.

“They tried to get us to buy the open space as Conservation Futures,” said Harris. “That’s just a no-no.”

“These people voluntarily taxed themselves to have their money used for this purpose,” said Harris of voters supporting Conservation Futures. “We have to be careful.”

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