Passage of forest tax bill in Olympia keeps effort to protect NK land on track
By Christopher Dunagan
OLYMPIA — The effort to protect 7,000 acres of forestland in North Kitsap received a boost from the Legislature, which has passed a bill that could save millions of dollars on the purchase price.
The bill creates an exemption for back property taxes that normally get paid when land is taken out of commercial forestry. The state maintains very low taxes on forestland to encourage owners to keep their property in forest production. As a penalty, up to 10 years of back taxes must be paid when the property is planned for development or other uses.
If Kitsap County were to acquire ownership of the full 7,000 acres owned by Pope Resources, as much as $7 million in taxes would be due all at once — even if the county maintains the land for logging, according to a fiscal note attached to the bill.
The tax exemption has been on the books for King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, which have been attempting to conserve forestlands in the Cascade Mountains. It also applies to qualified nonprofit land-conservation groups.
The specific bill, sponsored by Rep. Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge Island, lowered the population cutoff to allow Kitsap and Thurston counties to take advantage of the same exemption.
"This gives timber companies more options for keeping the land productive," Hansen said, "and it keeps Kitsap County moving forward with a very important project."
Hansen said the effort to preserve the 7,000 acres — known as the Kitsap Forest and Bay Project — will lead to tourism and jobs and maintain a high quality of life in Kitsap County.
"I think people around here recognize, as (former County Commissioner) Steve Bauer says, this is not a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; this is a once-in-forever opportunity," said Hansen, who declared the bill his top priority for the current legislative session.
The bill moved easily through the House but got caught in a Senate shuffle and was only moved out of committee on the last day for nonbudgetary measures.
Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, said the bill got hung up because it appeared to affect only a small group. But, with the clock winding down, lobbyists from timber companies, environmental groups and local governments joined together, along with many local supporters. They pushed Senate leaders to move the bill to a vote, which was unanimous in the Senate after only one dissenting vote in the House.
"It took teamwork," Rolfes said, "but it was very easy to say that everyone wants this."
Jon Rose, who is spearheading the land deal for Pope Resources, said the legislation shows how people can make things happen when they need to.
"This was one of the best examples of a diverse group of Kitsap County residents coming together for a positive result," he said, "and I would like to see more of it."
Michelle Connor of Forterra, formerly Cascade Land Conservancy, said the legislation will help not only with the Kitsap Forest and Bay Project but also with smaller efforts in Kitsap and Thurston counties.
Connor, who is spearheading Kitsap's fundraising effort, said the bill's approval feels like a "vote of confidence from the Legislature" for a statewide project that will preserve a sizable chunk of lowland forests in the Puget Sound region.
Sandra Staples-Bortner, executive director of Great Peninsula Conservancy and chairwoman of Kitsap Forest and Bay Coalition, said getting the bill passed was an important step toward acquiring the land.
Ownership and use of the 7,000 acres will be determined, in part, by the method of funding, including grants for preserving shorelines, wetlands and other sensitive lands, she said. But some of the property is likely to remain available for sustainable logging, with a goal of eventually restoring an old-growth ecosystem near Puget Sound.
"Right now, the coalition is involved in major fundraising with the help of Forterra," Staples-Bortner said, "and with an outreach and advocacy effort."
The Puget Sound Partnership has recognized Kitsap Forest and Bay as a high priority for funding, she noted. By summer, at least a half-dozen grants will be submitted to various government agencies and funding organizations with the hope of buying the first pieces of property.