Environment
3:01 pm
Tue August 28, 2012

Why King County held a party for a property tax

Celebrating taxes is a pretty uncommon event, but the King County Council did just that yesterday to mark the 30th anniversary of a property tax and the more than 100,000 acres of public lands it has paid to preserve.

The council also made its praise of the Conservation Futures Tax official with a resolution honoring those who created the program to spend the money.

The Conservation Futures Tax costs King County homeowners approximately 5 cents per $1,000 of the assessed value of their homes. (For a median-priced $380,000 home, that amounts to just under $20 per year.)

In recent years, the tax has brought in between $18-20 million annually. The funds are allocated during King County's annual budget process each November, and used to purchase property or easements that protect land from development.

Properties are selected based on an application review process conducted by a citizens committee in the spring.

Birth of a tax

Fresh from a weekend hike in the North Cascades, Council member Julia Patterson praised the program as something with truly lasting and spiritual value for future generations.

“I come home from those places refreshed – and a different person in some ways. It’s better than going in for a massage, definitely,” Patterson said as the council chambers filled with laughter.

From farmland to forests to shorelines, Council member Larry Philips says this tax provides the single largest source of funding for protecting King County’s open spaces.

“Over the course of the last 30 years, literally acre by acre and property by property, the Conservation Futures program has amassed an extraordinary legacy of green spaces that are now preserved from development in perpetuity. ”

King County formally adopted the Conservation Futures tax in September 1982. More than a decade earlier, in 1971, Republican governor Dan Evans had called a special session of the State Legislature to create the Department of Ecology and at the same time signed several environmental laws, including one that made the new tax legal.

In 1979, voters approved a bond measure for farmland preservation. But its enactment had stalled because of a lawsuit. In the end, enacting it involved perseverance and political will.

“This is very much a bi-partisan success story,” said Randy Revelle, a Democrat who in 1982 was the newly-elected King County Executive. 

King County led the way

Speaking at the ceremony, he said his election back then – by a very narrow margin – might have been won on the promise to make farmland preservation happen.  

Revelle says he was motivated by his heritage: his great uncle was the founder of the Pike Place Market. He didn't know how he would deliver on his promise. So he appointed a task force. The answer turned out to be the Conservation Futures Program.  

The program’s first $10 million went to buy about 200 acres that included land on Vashon Island and in the Green and Sammamish river valleys. 

King County carried out the first transaction, but Conservation Futures programs now exist all over the state. The tax has helped create thousands of urban parks and protected big swaths of critical wildlife habitat. 

One of the most recent land deals enacted under it is located near Riffe Lake in Lewis County, South east of Centralia.