New strategies for taking private property 
overlay the Critical Areas Code

 by Sue Forde

Clallam County, WA January 2001– While citizens were busy with the Christmas holidays, the County Commissioners were busy, too – passing the “Equity in Stewardship: Strategies for Protecting Critical Areas in Clallam County.”

“Equity in Stewardship” may sound innocuous, but it’s far from it.  The document offers strategies for acquisition of land in Clallam County – taking it out of private ownership, and placing it into “public” ownership or control.

The methods offered in the new plan include more taxes, monitoring for activities which don’t “comply” with the regulations and rules now in place through the Critical Areas Code and other ordinances, and helping landowners make the “choice” to give up conservation easements on their property.

The “Strategies” come as a result of the Governor’s Salmon Recovery Office grant (which is your tax money being used against you, made to sound nice).  Clallam County received money to “formulate policy for programs and strategies regarding the acquisition of property or property rights.”

We’ve heard that the U.S. Constitution prohibits “taking” without just compensation – this document states that the “4(d) rule derives from a section of the ESA [Endangered Species Act] that “prohibits the ‘taking’ or harming, of protected wild salmon stocks or their habitat.”  Several species of salmon are “protected” in Clallam County. (See Sidebar – Questions about Salmon.)

The County intends, according to the Strategies, to “prevent or remove…inappropriate development in critical habitat areas”.  Critical areas in Clallam County cover more than ½ of the entire county!  Is your property affected?  It doesn’t matter, because all property will be subject to the possibility of increased levies and taxes, according to the document.

The programs “allow County residents more freedom to choose the types of activities that occur on private property.  They may choose an activity that is not considered the ‘highest and best use’ (the potential land use in an area designated by zoning) of that land with no fear of a disproportionate tax burden.  A residential property owner may choose to designate property as open space, and the property taxes can be reduced based on the need for less intensive use.”

What kind of “freedom” is this?  Freedom means using your own land the way you choose – and most landowners are quite capable of taking care of their land in a manner that does not harm the environment.  The meaning of “freedom” has been changed here – to mean that you are “free” to do what the unelected bureaucrats say you can do – no more, no less.  Further, the fee to place property into “open space” has gone from $30 to $300!  Now that’s freedom – to pay for the privilege of owning your own property!

“Acquisition of conservation easements applies this same philosophy of freedom in land management into the future.  Conservation easements provide the landowner with equity and certainty in perpetuity, and encourage land uses that the public deems beneficial.”  The unelected bureaucrats and the land trusts, in partnership, will “manage” the easement you give them.  They will, according to the Strategy document, monitor your property to make sure you aren’t using the easement for anything other than use – and most frequently, it becomes land that cannot be used at all.  This is FOREVER (in perpetuity).  One of many drawbacks here is the reduction of value in the land itself – the reduced ability of saleability (who wants to purchase a piece of property where only part of it can be used?), and the payment of taxes on a property that in effect belongs to the “state”.

A conservation easement will “protect” the land “from development”. Conservation easements in Clallam County are given to the North Olympic Land Trust for ownership and management.

How will the county get the money for these land takings?  One option offered in the Strategies is the use of Conservation Futures Levies – a new property tax that is already being used in several counties across Washington.  This new tax would generate an estimated $237,500 per year for the county to use in buying up even more property.

Each time a property is taken from the private sector into the public sector, tax income for that property is gone.  That means the taxes for the remaining properties in the private sector must be taxed at an even higher rate, to cover the costs of government.  Property owners are then being taxed twice in this particular instance – once for the levy to help the county buy up more land, and again for a higher tax to make up the difference for land now in the “public” domain.

The steps to be taken are clearly written in the Strategy. 

  1. The county should “inventory and prioritize critical areas countywide…”
  2. The county should establish an “acquisition fund”.  Properties that have been “taken” for nonpayment of property tax should be kept, instead of being put back into the private sector through auction.  Properties received through donations should be transferred to a “suitable organization” – ie the North Olympic Land Trust (NOLT).
  3. The county should develop a “public outreach” program for the existing Clallam County Current Use Taxation (CUT).  The CUT program deals with placing land into the “Open Space” category, which means the landowner agrees to leave the property idle.  There are reduced taxes for this option; however the filing fee increased from $30 to $300 on Jan. 1, 2000, which makes for a costly transition.
  4. The county should review the zoning code and revise the existing Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) and Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) programs.  So far, there has not been any activity in these areas, due to the cumbersome nature of the rules.