Taxing land to buy land - Funds would be used to acquire 5,800 acres of private land for wildlife habitat, greenways
VANCOUVER, WA-- A new tax to buy open space and river-view land in Clark County could arrive on the ballot as early as November under a plan assembled by a county advisory group.
"It would be very valuable for the county," said Cherie
Kearney, acting executive director of the Columbia Land Trust, a nonprofit
land-conservation group with headquarters in Clark County.
The Conservation Areas Real Estate Excise Tax would add 0.25 percent, or $2.50 per $1,000, to the price of any Clark County real estate transaction.
In 10 years, it's estimated, the tax would raise $45 million. The money would be used by the county to acquire and maintain as many as 3,400 acres of wildlife habitat and greenways and 2,400 acres of farmland. Property that adjoins water would be particularly desirable for purchase. Part of the money would be used to administer the fund and maintain the properties.
A citizens advisory committee would recommend which lands should be purchased, but county commissioners would make final decisions. The land would be used as open space and for recreation that would have minimal impact on the land, such as swimming, fishing and hiking.
The county taxes property at a rate of 6.25 cents for every $1,000 of assessed value to pay for the Conservation Futures program. Since 1985, the program has generated $21.7 million and also attracted $16.7 million in matching funds.
But since much of the money was used to sell bonds to make new purchases, it will be until at least 2010 before some of the bonds are paid and money is available to buy new land.
Unlike the proposed tax, Conservation Futures money can only be used to purchase land, not maintain it.
In 2001, county commissioners appointed an 18-member committee to study the proposed tax and consider the kinds of properties it could purchase.
The committee identified specific areas where purchases should be made. Among greenways and habitat lands, for example, it noted Vancouver Lake Lowlands, the east fork of the Lewis River, Lacamas Lake and Salmon and Burnt Bridge creeks.
In each of these areas, it specified how much land should be purchased.
For example, it recommended buying as many as 460 acres in Vancouver Lake Lowlands.
The estimated cost over10 years to purchase habitat and greenway land would be $27.6 million.
Keeping farmland The estimated cost to purchase farmland would be $12.5 million, although farmland would probably not be bought outright. Instead, conservation easements would be purchased that would allow the land to be used only for agriculture, even if it were sold.
"The idea isn't that Clark County get into the farm business," said Bill Dygert, a consultant who worked on the project. "But I think there is a high level of interest in protecting the opportunity to farm in Clark County as we grow."
Conservation easements can usually be purchased for 80 percent to 90 percent of what it would cost to purchase land outright, Dygert said.
County commissioners, probably in August, will consider whether to hold a public hearing as part of the process of placing the tax on the ballot. The earliest it could be voted on would be November.
But opposition is already developing. Other real estate excise taxes are already in effect. The state imposes one at 1.28 percent. In Clark County, depending on the location, additional taxes brings the total to 1.53 percent or 1.78 percent.
"If it goes to the voters, we will be opposing it," said Jessica Hoffman, governmental affairs director for the Clark County Association of Realtors. "By increasing the real estate excise tax, we will further price out those who are on the cusp of getting to the door of a new home."
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