25 percent of county in Open Space programs (01-04-2010)

After reviewing an application for an Current Use Open Space application Dec. 9, the county Planning Commission approved a motion endorsing the county Council's "intent to revisit open open space programs."

The application, for the owner of a private island, included points for allowing access to a specific Seattle Boy Scout Troup's Search and Rescue unit access to the island. The more points the property has, the larger the tax break.

The Planning Commission asked that the Council's review include that "Public access can be utilized and such utlitization is documented."

Planning Commissioner Mike Carlson commented on the other Current Use programs. He said, "Like the other tax programs there needs to be some accountability. Those are tax deferrals. Those are supposed to be generating revenue."

According to the county Auditor the Timber Open Space and the Designated Forest Land brought in less than $450 in timber tax in 2009.

The county has four Current Use Programs and plans to add a fifth. To enroll in the Designated Forest Land and Farm and Agricultural Current Use programs, a property owner contacts the county Assessor's Office. A fee of $350 is paid, a forestry plan or proof of actively farming is required. The property is then assessed at current use value rather than market value. Property taxes are lower. How much lower depends on how much of the property is involved in the program.

The Current Use Open Space and Current Use Timber programs are applied for through the Community Development and Planning Department. A fee of $1330 is paid. The higher fee reflects the need for advertising, notices, and public hearings before the Planning Commission and the county Council.

If someone is found to not belong in the programs, the penalty is payment of the back taxes for up to the past seven years at 12 percent interest plus a fine of 20 percent. The money collected goes to the county and the junior taxing districts depending on where the property is located.

Current Use Open Space
133 properties totalling 3,420 acres are enrolled in the Open Open Space program. If not in the program, they would be valued at $195,504,690 instead they are taxed as though they are worth $93,539,700.

The taxes on the $102,035,010 difference are paid by other taxpayers.

To qualify for the Open Open Space program, the property is visited by the Open Space Advisory Team and given points according to the public benefit that would result from placing the property in the program.

State law gives these goals:

(i) conserve and enhance natural or scenic resources, or

(ii) protect streams or water supply, or

(iii) promote conservation of soils, wetlands, beaches or tidal marshes, or (iv) enhance the value to the public of abutting or neighboring parks, forests, wildlife preserves, nature reservations or sanctuaries or other open space, or

(v) enhance recreation opportunities, or

(vi) preserve historic sites, or

(vii) preserve visual quality along highway, road, and street corridors or scenic vistas, or (viii) retain in its natural state tracts of land not less than one acre situated in an urban area and open to public use on such conditions as may be reasonably required by the legislative body granting the open space classification, or

The application is reviewed by the county Planning Commission and then approved or denied by the county Council. The tax break is a percentage depending on the number of points.

The Current Use Open Space public benefit allows specific groups to access the properties. Points are given for public access. Information on the properties and the groups allowed to go to the properties is supposed to be available at the public libraries. A pink binder at the San Juan Island Library contains Open Space Access information which was last updated in 1996. CHART of Current Use Open Space land

Current Use Timber
143 properties, totalling 2,015 acres, are in the Open Space Timber Land program. The owners of the property are required to have and follow management plans delineating how they will log the land. The property has a market value of $50,806,270 but is taxed at its current use value of $10,481,320. CHART OF TIMBER LAND

Designated Forest Land
Five hundred properties, totalling 15,710 acres, are in Designated Forest Land. There is not a market value for these properties but they are taxed at a value of $1,233,920.

When properties are taken out of this program, the Assessor's office appraises the property and taxes are paid for the past nine years at the current market value and at the current tax rate. Unlike the other Open Space programs, no interest rate or penalty is paid. CHART OF FOREST LAND

Farm and Agriculture Current Use
269 properties, totalling 7,927 acres are in the Farm and Ag Open Space program. The market value is $164,976,420, the current use value is $55,981,250. The current use values include homes which are valued at market value.

County Assessor Charles Zalmanek said the Current Use Open Space; Current Use  Farm Ag and Current Use  Timber comprised 12 percent of the acreage in San Juan County. Adding in the 15,710 acres of DFL would bring the total to 25 percent of county land which is in one of the four tax-reduced Current Use programs.

The programs do not reduce the amount of revenue the county collects, the tax bill just shifts to other taxpayers. The theory is the public benefit of the Open Space is of value to the entire community.

The logging of the timber from the Timber and Forest land is supposed to bring in revenue to the state and county through other revenue streams.

It is difficult to monitor the whether the forest management plans are being followed.

Assessors do not have the plans with them when they assess the properties every three years. They do report if it is obvious the forest is not being managed - if it is full of brush for instance, said Zalmanek.

Lack of staffing due to budget cuts makes monitoring of the programs problemmatic. Properties which went into the program many years ago, do not have forest management plans. When the property changes hands, a plan is required by the Assessor's office.

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