Planners make blueprint for green space

Thursday, April 21, 2005


From the seat of a small plane above Vashon Island, fishing boats look like specks off the southern shoreline ringed by lush tree cover and sandy beaches free of docks or concrete walls.

"That's a clue that this is where the fish are," Roger Hoesterey, Northwest regional director of the conservation group Trust for Public Land, said, peering out the plane window.

When people look for the best spots to permanently protect as open space or parks, some places intuitively make sense. But in King County -- which in recent years has spent tens of millions to buy or acquire development rights on ecologically valuable property -- a new computer mapping tool should help officials spend that money more wisely.

Planners can now quickly rank potential land acquisitions based on hundreds of criteria: tree types; how fertile the soil is; what development threats exist; whether it's in a wildlife or trails corridor; and how close it is to other parks or open space.

King County paid the Trust for Public Land $100,000 to develop a "greenprint," which uses computerized geographic information systems and brainstorming with officials to create a land acquisition strategy.

The new computer model will allow county staff working in different areas -- farmland protection, forestry, flood control, regional trails -- to immediately see which parcels would provide multiple benefits.

"Up to now I think we've been kind of been working by opportunity in terms of our acquisitions but we've never been able to zero in on the actual parcels that will be incredibly critical," King County Executive Ron Sims said.

The mapping shows, for instance, that key connections for a trail network allowing someone to hop on a bike and ride anywhere in the county lie along undeveloped land near state Route 18 east of Auburn.

The best opportunities to preserve pristine shorelines are on Vashon and Maury islands, the report says. Because waterfront property is so dear and sources of money are scarce, that historically hasn't received as much attention as farmland or forest protection, Hoesterey said.

But preserving access to Puget Sound -- and the nearshore habitat that supports marine life -- is becoming a more visible issue, he said.

"With all the growth that's occurring on our shorelines, a lot of beaches that people thought were public and open now have houses and signs saying, 'Do not enter,' " he said.

Over the decades, King County has purchased nearly 26,000 acres for parks or open space. It also has acquired development rights or easements on 112,000 acres that will keep farms, timberlands, trail corridors or floodplains as they are today.

Last year King County ensured that more than 90,000 acres formerly known as the Snoqualmie Tree Farm will remain a working forest. But that historic deal only protected roughly a third of the county's highly valued timberland, according to the greenprint analysis.

The report also found that more than 10,000 acres of important farmland lack permanent protection.

County zoning laws and growth policies are generally keeping those fields green. But the only way to guarantee they don't become subdivisions is to acquire conservation easements or buy development rights, officials say.

"Zoning is only as good as a political moment. It could change overnight," Sims said.

For now, there aren't pressing discussions about asking taxpayers to approve another countywide open space bond measure. But the new greenprint model could help the county make an informed case to the public, Sims said.

Bob Burns, deputy director of the county's Department of Natural Resources and Parks, said the greenprint will help the county better prioritize limited money for open space.

The money typically comes from state or federal grants, a slice of property taxes and real estate excise taxes. King County also offers tax breaks for some owners who agree to leave ecologically significant properties intact for 10 years.

With rural residents seething over new county regulations that legally force them to leave stream buffers and large swaths of forested property undeveloped, many have called for the county to pay them for the land it wants to protect.


King County will honor the Trust for Public Land and individuals and businesses tomorrow at Earth Day Expo, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Westlake Park, Fourth Avenue and Pine Street.

P-I reporter Jennifer Langston can be reached at 206-448-8130 or

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