The Algebra of Reconveyance, part one
THE ALGEBRA OF RECONVEYANCE, Part One: Whatcom County Council last week complained of an administrative request to shift approximately $82,300 from the Conservation Futures Fund into the general fund to help pay for parks maintenance and operations, but what’s the real shift and shell game going on?
County Executive Jack Louws proposed making funds approved by voters in 1996 to acquire parklands and open space available to tend those acquired public assets. It’s a sensible policy—one enshrined by the City of Bellingham in an analogous voter-approved parkland acquisitions measure, Greenways III, which sets aside a portion of levy funds for the maintenance and operations of acquired parks. It’s a policy, moreover, recommended by the previous administration and endorsed by council for the past four years.
“You can’t acquire lands and not maintain them,” Council President Kathy Kershner observed in soft support of the executive’s request. She’s right.
So what’s changed?
Perhaps it is not entirely coincidental that council members who express the most violent opposition to upcoming parks proposals are also most gleeful in their desire to defund and starve county parks.*
Next week, County Council will again consider a proposal to convert 603 acres of county-owned land along the South Fork of the Nooksack River near Acme into a park. With its emphasis on horseback recreation, the park is unusual and caters to a different (and currently underserved) demographic.
Later this month, they’ll consider the Lake Whatcom Reconveyance, a parks plan that dwarfs and makes modest the South Fork bonanza.
So: Effort to kill the smaller as precursor and precedent to kill the larger.
Most questions about the South Fork Park proposal have been answered in several public meetings recently; but that doesn’t prevent Council member Bill Knutzen, who opposes the idea, from ginning up more questions. Knutzen recently challenged the method by which the value of those lands were appraised.
“Whatcom County has overpaid for property that was overvalued,” Knutzen wrote, declaring council was led to believe they were getting the land as donations and gifts when in reality they were paying more than the market value. His history is false.
The land was acquired by the county from three sources, each one ultimately approved by council.
In 1993, Kay and David Syre made a gift of the northernmost 262-acre Galbraith Farm, bundled in a much larger transaction that involved 26,000 acres managed by multiple agencies, including acres adjacent to Larrabee State Park. The gift was contingent upon certain appropriations for Larrabee State Park by the state Legislature, which were approved, and that the property would be used by the county as a park.
“The Syres were clear and open that the gift was dependent upon the political decision by the legislature to fund a purchase sought by state parks of land to enlarge Washington’s oldest state park,” attorney Rand Jack commented. Jack serves on the board of Whatcom Land Trust, a frequent partner in county land acquisitions. “This does not make the gift any less of a gift.”
Whatcom County received the central Overby Place by reconveyance in 1998 from the Dept. of Natural Resources. Prior to approving the reconveyance, County Council understood the 214-acre reconveyance included only the land and not the timber on the land. The holder of those timber rights appraised them at below fair market value. Council approved $750,000 for purchase of those timber rights. A private donation of $500,000 obtained by Whatcom Land Trust contributed to the purchase. Again, by conditions of the reconveyance, the land must be used as a park.
In 1998, Whatcom County acquired the southernmost Nesset Farm for $980,000. This was $637,000 below the $1.6 million appraised value of the 106 acres of land and timber. The Nesset Foundation agreed to return net proceeds of the sale for restoration, maintenance and operation of the park.
“Because the purchase money for the Nesset Farm is being returned, this was, for all practical purposes, a gift of the Nesset Farm to Whatcom County,” Jack commented.
In all, the county spent $750,000 total for all three properties and received in return $4.7 million in appraised fair market value. Conservation Futures assisted in these purchases; and undergirding each was the understanding that the acquisitions would, in fact, be used as parks.
Public access to the Nesset Farm property is encumbered by private landowners, who continue to hold the easement rights, an ambiguity Knutzen intended to expand upon to collapse the whole. Yet access to two of the three properties intended to form the park, north and central, are not encumbered! Alternative park plans address the ambiguity by effectively closing the southern end of the park to public access.
“Whether it was believing that the Nesset property had access, or that we were getting something for nothing,” Knutzen fumed, “it seems throughout the whole process the council was given information that was misleading or incomplete.”
On the contrary, the public record on these land acquisitions is extensive, approved by a fiercely conservative earlier County Council. Only Knutzen’s grasp of contingent agreements and the assay of timber value appears incomplete. He complains the county overpaid for the value of timber on these properties in light of declarations by the owners that they did not intend to log.
“This seems like a bargain [only] if 106 acres of unharvestable timber is worth $1.23 million on the Nesset property,” he jibed.
But his argument is specious: If the county declined to purchase these forest lands, they would be sold to someone who could and might log the lands, and perhaps then convert them to other uses. Preserving and protecting resource lands is the very point and purpose of the conservation futures voters approved. And to now use this argument to undermine the plan to adopt these lands as a park would collapse the very agreements by which they were acquired.
Knutzen has often expressed his annoyance that an abundance of resource land remains in public ownership and trust. Watch for similar arguments when the Lake Whatcom Reconveyance arrives with the speed of the South Fork.
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* The county’s most ardent supporter of parks and executive privilege, Pete Kremen, was absent to help override the nonsense.