Advisory vote on conservation financing headed to November ballot in Benton County

Tri-City HeraldJuly 8, 2014 

Benton County voters will have the chance this fall to weigh in on whether they’d support a property tax to pay for conservation projects.

County commissioners in a split vote Tuesday agreed to put an advisory measure on the Nov. 4 ballot. The results won’t be binding — the idea is to gauge the public’s interest, with the outcome of the vote guiding commissioners in making a decision about a conservation futures fund.

The advisory measure will ask about a 10-year property tax that would cost $6.25 a year for a $100,000 home. It would raise $800,000 to $1 million a year, with the money dedicated to projects from buying park land and open space to protecting water quality and wildlife habitat, preserving farmland and increasing opportunities for outdoor recreation.

The county would administer the money.

More than a dozen counties in the state have set up conservation futures funds, including Spokane County. Efforts there have been successful, with more than 40 projects, said Scott Woodward, president of Tapteal Greenway and Ridges to Rivers Open Space Network. He noted the Tri-

City community already has a foundation for implementing a conservation futures program in the Ridges to Rivers open space vision plan.

Woodward and other local conservation advocates have been looking into the feasibility of a local conservation futures program for more than a year, with help from The Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit.

A community survey last fall that described a conservation futures tax found initial support at 54 percent, with the reception potentially growing warmer with a strong campaign.

Commissioners Jim Beaver and Jerome Delvin voted Tuesday to send the advisory measure to the ballot, saying it’s a chance to hear from the community on the issue. “We are representatives of the community, and I think it’s important to have the community speak to us,” said Beaver, chairman of the board of commissioners.

Commissioner Shon Small voted against the measure, saying the timing isn’t right. He brought up financial uncertainty in the county, including a recent loss of some Human Services funding because of changes at the state level, and said he’s concerned about the effect on the public safety sales tax on the August ballot.

He said he’s heard from many constituents who aren’t interested in a conservation property tax.

Proponents of the conservation measure said they don’t plan to actively campaign until after the public safety measure goes to voters Aug. 5.

The Tri-Cities is growing and development pressure is mounting, and the time to conserve and preserve land is now, they said.

“It’s unprecedented in the history of Benton County to have funds dedicated to conservation and recreation and preserving the quality life of our community,” said David Comstock, vice president of Friends of Badger Mountain. “Growth is happening right here, and now is the time to set aside the land that’s worth saving.”

Woodward added that, “necessity and opportunity don’t always meet. This is an opportunity for us to meet necessity.”

-- Sara Schilling: 509-582-1529; sschilling@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @saraTCHerald

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