Should this land be our land?

Call it the dream of fields. And woods. And perhaps a little shoreline as well. The desire to preserve the island’s natural features and farms underpins the $8 million open space bond levy that goes before voters Nov. 6. The campaign got an unexpected push last week, when the city came to terms with Akio Suyematsu for public purchase of his 15-acre working farm on Day Road East.

  • Wednesday, October 31, 2001 12:00pm
  • News

Call it the dream of fields.

And woods. And perhaps a little shoreline as well.

The desire to preserve the island’s natural features and farms underpins the $8 million open space bond levy that goes before voters Nov. 6.

The campaign got an unexpected push last week, when the city came to terms with Akio Suyematsu for public purchase of his 15-acre working farm on Day Road East.

City officials hailed the deal, which had been in the works for more than three years.

“It is an excellent example of what the open space bond would be able to accomplish, much more broadly, in the future,” Mayor Dwight Sutton said.

Do islanders seem to want more of Bainbridge preserved?

Last year, in a “community values survey” commissioned by the city, responses suggested considerable anxiety over the loss of natural features, increasing traffic and sprawl.

This past April, a second poll suggested that islanders would line up behind a bond levy dedicated to open space preservation.

That poll showed 58 percent of respondents would support a $10 million open space levy, and 63 percent would support a $7 million levy.

Reasoning that support by 60 percent of voters – the number needed to pass an “excess” levy – lay somewhere between, the city administration proposed an $8 million bond issue, which was formally approved for the ballot last month.

City projections show the levy would cost the owners of a $300,000 Bainbridge home an average of $52 per year for the life of the bonds.

The assessment would not kick in until the city actually sells the bonds, which likely won’t happen until the second half of 2002, according to city finance director Ralph Eells.

The proposed ordinance, No. 1 on the ballot, calls for funds to be used to purchase “forested areas (and) wildlife habitat (including… environmentally fragile areas, land along streams and ponds, and wetlands); and farms and agricultural lands,” as well as passive parks.

Off the list are new sports fields and facilities, felt to be outside the scope of the open space program.

Anticipating levy approval, the city council recently approved formation of an open space acquisition committee, which would evaluate land and make recommendations for purchase. Committee members would be selected after the election.

Neil Johannsen, who co-chairs the levy campaign with attorney Lynda McMaken and open space the levy campaign with attorney Lynda McMaken and open space levy veteran Connie Waddington, said the responses so far seem to validate the poll results.

“If someone can do something about the issues of the day, people seem to appreciate that,” Johannsen said. “Open space is an issue of the day.”

Of Bainbridge Island’s 17,000 acres, approximately 1,120 are now preserved in active and passive park areas.

That includes lands owned by the city, the park district and the state, with parcels ranging in size from the tiny Aaron Avenue “tot lot” to the 318 acres of Gazzam Lake.

Another 260-odd acres are protected by conservation easements negotiated by the Bainbridge Island Land Trust. Those properties can no longer be developed, but are still held by private owners and do not afford public access.

How much land is enough?

Perhaps closest to a community goal is the park district’s comprehensive plan, which calls for preservation of 10 percent of Bainbridge Island – 1,700 acres – for active and passive recreation.

Also, the city has committed to saving 1 percent, some 170 acres, as active farmland.

Assuming an eventual island “buildout” population of 35,000, that would put the “level of service” for parks, public open space and farming at just under half an acre per capita. But in park circles nationwide, the thinking has shifted away from targets like “acres per resident,” toward individual community standards and simple long-term planning.

“You have these goals, but it’s also being driven by opportunity,” said open space advocate Perry Barrett, a planner for the park district. “When a community has land available and resources (to spend), it’s easier to purchase it now than waiting until later.”

That’s one of the themes of the levy campaign, which has also sought support at events on “rural Bainbridge” – the farmers’ market, the Suyematsu pumpkin patch, and the Rolling Bay Harvest Fair.

The campaign has distributed literature and raised funds for months; contributions so far total $12,000, Johannsen said, mostly in $10, $15 and $20 checks.

Funds have paid for newspaper advertisements and all-island mailings, with more slated before the Nov. 6 election.

Johannsen said the campaign hasn’t faltered in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks – perhaps the opposite.

“Suddenly, home has a bigger dimension than just a house on some street,” Johannsen said. “Home is island-wide, and a lot of people care about that.”

Past levies

The open space levy is the third to go before island voters in the past decade.

In 1991, a $5 million bond issue to purchase 240 acres from the state Department of Natural Resources earned better than 80 percent support, creating the Grand Forest.

That was followed four years later by a $2.6 million levy to purchase Gazzam Lake, a levy that earned 63 percent approval.

But unlike earlier levies, the one now before island voters doesn’t identify any specific parcels for purchase. Rather, it authorizes the city to issue up to $8 million in new debt to pay for land as it comes available.

The lack of a plan is troublesome to those who have stepped forward to oppose the levy, including the Committee Against Proposition 1.

“The city doesn’t have a plan to buy any property,” said George Zonoff, who wrote the voter pamphlet argument opposing the measure.

Zonoff says the city already has an abundance of park land.

“We have the highest ratio of open space to population of any city in the country,” Zonoff said. “Why do we need more”?

The committee also maintains that setbacks, buffers and other city restrictions on development – including substantial setasides in subdivisions – are sufficient to preserve open space.

Depending upon zoning, open space requirements for island subdivisions are 40 percent or more, although that includes landscaping and other improved areas and generally does not make provision for public access.

But Zonoff questions the financial wisdom of buying land for open space when so much must be left open anyway.

“These are tax dollars,” he said. “Do we really want to spend them bo buy only a percentage of the land”?

Some opponents have weighed in to say island property taxes are already too high. Still others argue that those who want to see open space preserved should simply make a donation to the Bainbridge Island Land Trust, a non-profit organization that promotes land stewardship and conservation.

Steph Miller, a BILT board member, disputes that idea.

“The argument that donating to the land trust will replace public money for public facilities is not a good argument,” Miller said. “The land trust generally works with private owners who don’t want people walking on their land.”

Local land prices are the real challenge, he said, and unless a project is “very compelling,” it’s not easy to raise the money through donations.

As to the absence of a list of desired properties, backers say the open space committee and city council will simply review proposals case by case. Identifying properties up front, Johannsen said, could see them lost to speculators.

“My view is that people are tired of plans,” he said. “We want the advantage of speed when opportunities present themselves.”

Mayor Sutton has used his office as a bully pulpit for the open space cause, and has taken an opportunistic approach in the last two years of his administration.

In fact, the city has made a half-dozen open space and farmland purchases in the past 21 months:

* January 2000 – 11 acres of waterfront and tidelands for habitat conservation at the head of Eagle Harbor — $195,000;

* July 2001 – Salter property, five acres of woodlands adjoining Meigs Park, $140,000 (to be paid in installments over 10 years);

* July 2001 – Johnson farm on Fletcher Bay Road, 14.5 acres, $750,000 (purchased with the intent to resell it to a local farm group);

* October 2001 – 15 acres northwest of the Head of the Bay, protecting a watershed and city wells (several lots at the edge of the property may be resold to recover purchase costs) – $340,000;

* October 2001 – Suyematsu property, 15-acre working farm on Day Road East, $550,000 (interest-only payments for 10 years, followed by balloon payment).

The city has also picked up several degraded parcels from the county, including the Lovgreen Road gravel pit, and will soon take over the 40 acres surrounding the reclaimed Vincent Road dump.

In some cases, the city spent down cash reserves, or used money that had been budgeted with an eye on the Suyematsu farm. For the watershed purchases, some water utility funds were used, as the land surrounds city wells.

With the economy softening and future tax revenues uncertain, Sutton suggested last week that the city is tapped out for more land purchases without the levy.

But there remains the question of just how far $8 million would go, on an island with land prices that go from high to astronomical.

Backers are counting on the emergence of what they call “conservation sellers” – owners who want to sell their land, but would offer it to the city at reduced price to keep it from being developed. Gazzam Lake was one such deal.

Another prototype deal might be the effort that created Blakely Harbor Park, which came together with both public and private dollars.

The original 20-acre purchase, for $2.5 million in 1999, was funded by a hodgepodge of sources. State, county and city grants totaled more than $1.5 million; a private drive raised the balance of $1 million.

Within a year, a private donor gave another $500,000 to purchase a sliver of waterfront that completed the south side of the park.

Then last week, in a deal that had been in the works for some time, the land trust and park district completed purchase of another 18.4 acres off Country Club Road, using $200,000 in private donations and $169,000 from the city.

The deal doubled the size of the park to 39.4 acres.

“This is what we can do with public money, if we augment it with private donations,” Miller said.

Like some others, Miller takes a long-term view of the issue.

“Public land is something to be cherished,” he said. “The best way to continue our conservation ethic is to give our children land they can walk on and enjoy and fall in love with.”

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