Pierce County, WA: Tax hike would fund conservation district, help buy up development rights

AARON CORVIN; The News Tribune

Pierce County, WA - 4/3/03 - Pierce County property owners could pay $5 more in property taxes next year if the County Council approves a proposal to boost farming and conservation.

Officials with the Pierce Conservation District pitched the idea to the council's planning and environment committee during an informal public meeting Wednesday.

The five-member district's primary duty is to help landowners and farmers meet federal and state environmental rules. It wants the council to assess the tax for six years beginning Jan. 1, 2004. State law says the council can assess the tax for up to 10 years without a vote of the people.

Under the proposal, property owners in the cities of Tacoma, University Place, Puyallup, Fircrest, Lakewood and Steilacoom would pay $5 per parcel annually. Property owners in unincorporated Pierce County would pay $5 annually, plus 10 cents per acre for properties an acre or larger.

The special assessment would add $1.3 million per year to the conservation district's budget and leverage at least an additional $8.8 million in federal and state grants to boost water quality, farm planning and salmon recovery projects, said district manager Monty Mahan. The district spends more than $800,000 in federal, state, county and city funds a year for farm assistance and recovery programs for streams and salmon.

"Some of these things are being done currently, but at a very low level," he said. "We think it needs to be expanded."

The additional money also would enable the district to develop a program to buy development rights to preserve farmland in Pierce County.

A 1997 U.S. Department of Agriculture census showed that the nation lost 13.7 million acres of farmland between 1992 and 1997. During the same period, Pierce County lost 7,882 acres of farmland, or 4.3 acres a day.

Pierce County has spent public money to preserve two farms in its history: a 48-acre farm on Anderson Island and a 12-acre farm in Edgewood.

A proposed ordinance is not on the table yet, and the County Council's planning and environment committee took no action Wednesday. A similar proposal by the district didn't get anywhere last year. Since then, four new council members have taken office.

"We need to start that dialogue process again," said Councilman Calvin Goings (D-Puyallup), chairman of the planning and environment committee. "This is our crack at bringing ourselves up to speed" on the issues.

Goings said council members will take formal testimony from the public once an ordinance is proposed, possibly later this spring.

Formed in 1949, the Pierce Conservation District is a creation of state government.

Its main job is to assist landowners who otherwise face government penalties for degrading the environment. In some cases, people must fix something, such as a blocked stream or a crumbling culvert. In other cases, district officials can help small farmers reduce or eliminate pollution.

One of the district's programs - the Pierce County Stream Team - is a largely volunteer effort. In 2000, for example, the Stream Team recruited 427 workers for 11 projects to plant about 4,000 plants and help fortify area streams.

The district is not a regulatory body, which makes it easier for farmers and landowners to accept, Mahan said.

"Landowners welcome us onto their land generally," he said.

Aaron Corvin: 253-552-7058

For more information about the Pierce Conservation District special assessment proposal, call manager Monty Mahan, 253-845-9787, or visit www.piercecountycd.org.


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