Spokane County Treasurer Michael Baumgartner hinted Tuesday that his office might be willing to lend out the cash necessary to purchase and conserve 48 acres of unspoiled land in the Latah Valley.
Spokane-area leaders and conservation groups are interested in sparing the agricultural land from residential development, but so far haven’t been able to scrounge up the capital to buy it.
The property is currently at a proverbial fork in the road – it will either be cut up into 94 residential lots or conserved.
Landowner John Pilcher nominated the property for a Spokane County Conservation Futures Program grant at the city of Spokane’s request in 2016, but enough funding hasn’t been pieced together to buy it from him.
After The Spokesman-Review documented the development-or-conservation conundrum in a story published Tuesday, Baumgartner issued a statement offering the Spokane Public Investment Fund as a potential solution.
The Spokane Public Investment Fund dedicates a portion of its $1.3 billion pool toward funding local government projects.
“The High Drive Bluff natural area is a treasure for our community and something that we should protect,” Baumgartner said in a statement. “We currently have about $100 million in capacity for local lending for good public projects. Helping finance the purchase of this area would be a tiny portion of our fund and something I would be very interested in considering.”
Even if a loan is available, it’s unclear if it would make the conservation a sure bet.
The property has been on dual paths since 2016, when Pilcher proposed the 94-lot development but also applied for a Conservation Futures grant.
The Conservation Futures Program placed the property fifth on its priority list in 2016. It’s already purchased the top four but hasn’t been able to fund the acquisition of the Pilcher property.
The program has relied on the treasurer’s office for short-term loans to buy properties in the past, including the 231-acre Etter Ranch property south of the Antoine Peak Conservation Area in 2019 for $2 million.
Paul Knowles, special projects manager for the county parks department, said that program was slated to have all of its existing debts paid off by the beginning of 2022. Being free of debt is an enticing prospect because the county is expected to receive a slate of new conservation proposals later this year.
Land prices have increased about 6% annually, Knowles added, but the fund’s property tax revenue is capped at a 1% annual increase. To add new properties to its list of conservation efforts, the program will need to minimize its debts.
“We appreciate his offer, but we have to take a look at what’s best for the program,” Knowles said.
The city of Spokane is also interested in conserving the property, but has failed to buy it. In a February letter to Pilcher, Spokane County Parks and Recreation Director Garrett Jones laid out a path for city ownership that included reliance on Conservation Futures dollars and wouldn’t wrap up until 2023.
Pilcher, through his attorney, has suggested it may already be too late.
“The property appears to be an important community asset, and we generally like the idea that it could be preserved. We’ve demonstrated a commitment to a public purchase by holding the property off the market and have participated in dozens of conversations about how such a purchase might come together,” Pilcher’s attorney, Taudd Hume, previously wrote in an email to The Spokesman-Review.
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