By Dave Schaub and Eric Sawyer
As advocates for vital habitat, recreation and public open space lands, we love Spokane County’s Conservation Futures program. Alongside us, county residents have repeatedly demonstrated their enthusiasm for this program at the polls and at the dozens of trailheads accessing the lands the program has protected. Unfortunately, this popular funding mechanism is unduly hampered by a levy lid that suppresses our conservation impact at a time when we need to protect open space more than ever. Thankfully, Washington state legislators are considering a solution to this problem right now, and you have a chance to voice your support for our best local conservation funding program.
A fix for this problem is available through House Bill 1672 – a bill which would exempt Conservation Futures programs across the state from the constraints of the 1% levy lid. Such a fix would keep our county open space program competitive in the face of hot real estate markets by allowing its funding to keep pace with climbing property values. If approved by the state Legislature, our county commissioners could then bring this prized funding mechanism back to its original strength, helping our community protect more natural lands to benefit our growing population.
This bill, being considered in the House Finance Committee at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, needs your support to move forward. We urge you to sign on in support of this at the committee meeting on Tuesday, or to reach out to your representative to support the bill in the House, and to Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig to support the measure when it comes to the Senate.
Sadly, because of the depressing effect of Washington state’s 1% property tax levy limit, the buying power of Conservation Futures is falling far behind the times. This “levy lid” prohibits counties from collecting more than 101% of their previous year’s property tax revenues, forcing county governments to reduce the effective rate of individual programs that are funded by property tax dollars. In our current real estate market, with property values skyrocketing by more than 20% per year, the Conservation Futures program enters land purchase negotiations disadvantaged by the unnecessary chokehold of the 1% levy lid. While the original legislation allowed counties to collect 6.25 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value, the impacts of the levy lid have reduced that down to a meager 3.3 cents per $1,000 in 2022.
In Spokane County, many of our favorite public open spaces were protected with funding from our Conservation Futures Program. This property tax-funded pool of conservation dollars was initially approved in 1994 with substantial voter support and then enthusiastically reaffirmed repeatedly by county voters over the next dozen years. It’s not hard for an average Spokane County homeowner to love a program that permanently protects some of their favorite outdoor destinations at an annual cost to them of a couple six-packs of their favorite post hike/ride/run beverage.
For years, the 1% levy lid has been steadily eroding this popular county program. Consider that in 2016 when Spokane County conserved the popular Sisters of the Holy Names property along the Spokane River, the annual revenue collected from the Conservation Futures program was able to provide almost 60% of that property’s purchase price. With property values climbing and the levy rate falling because of the tax lid, we expect that by 2025 the program’s annual revenue would provide less than 40% of that property’s purchase price. Because these conservation projects often require at least 50% local money to be eligible for matching state funds, we will likely lose out on similarly sized projects soon. In other words, as our region’s population grows, our ability to protect natural land shrinks.
Whether you’re a newcomer to the region or a lifelong resident of the Inland Northwest, one thing we agree on is that our quality of life comes in large part from our easy access to beautiful, well-protected, diverse, public, natural lands. From the banks of the Spokane River to the top of Mica Peak, we have dozens of trailheads and hundreds of miles of trails to choose from – all within a short walk, bike ride, or drive from home.
Our love of these natural lands and their importance to our health and well-being became eminently clear over the past two years as COVID-19 forced us outside and onto neighborhood trails. During this same time, we’ve watched property values soar as others realized that they, too, could live in our beautiful, uncrowded area and work remotely. As a result, our trailheads and trails are a lot more crowded than they used to be. We’re all craving even more access to our region’s natural lands.
Public open space provides a wide variety of community benefits – clean air and water, and recreational opportunities like hiking, mountain biking, running, and bird watching – all while forming the scenic backdrop to our cities and neighborhoods. These lands also stimulate our economy by attracting employers, retaining workers, and drawing visitors to our growing region. And crucially, protected public lands provide vital habitat for native plants and animals.
Spokane County residents have shown time and again their support for our Conservation Futures program at the ballot box and at our trailheads and parks. Right now, we can advocate for legislation to clarify that this valuable program shouldn’t be hampered by the unreasonable 1% levy lid. We here in the Inland Northwest know that our natural lands and waters sustain life in the region: our lives, our neighbors’ lives, and the lives of countless individuals to come – human, plant, and animal. Now is the time to ensure that our best local source of funding for the ongoing protection of open space becomes competitive and capable of benefiting us long into the future.
Dave Schaub is the executive director of Inland Northwest Land Conservancy, and Eric Sawyer is chair of the Spokane County Conservation Futures Land Evaluation Committee.