San Juan County commissioners approve ordinance, creating a land bank to acquire and preserve open space and conservation areas, on September 5, 1990.

  • By Elizabeth Anderson and HistoryLink Staff
  • Posted 3/26/2015
  • Essay 11052

On September 5, 1990, the San Juan County Board of County Commissioners approves Ordinance No. 142-1990, creating a land bank to conserve natural areas in the county, whose small land area is scattered across dozens of scenic islands in Northwest Washington. The land bank is promoted by islanders alarmed at the disappearance of open lands, which previously provided views, recreational opportunities, and habitat preservation, due to rapid population growth, subdivision, and construction. They have proposed that the problem fund the solution: impose a small tax on real-estate sales to fund acquisition of public lands. The islands' real-estate and business communities see economic benefits in protecting natural areas that attract people to the islands. Despite the local support, many were skeptical that the new tax would gain approval from the state legislature, but a bill authorizing it was easily approved in March 1990. County Ordinance No. 142-1990 creates a land bank and asks voters to approve a real-estate excise tax to fund its work, which they will do by a solid margin in November 1990. Over the next quarter century the San Juan County Land Bank will preserve some 5,000 acres and 10 miles of shoreline.

Problem and Solution 

As car ferries and air transport made the islands more accessible, San Juan County's scenic waterways, open landscapes, and rural lifestyle attracted more and more visitors and residents. But that very popularity endangered the scenery, natural areas, and recreational opportunities that drew people to the islands and boosted their economy. By the 1980s, some island residents who had watched open, rural areas disappear in the face of development around the West looked for ways to ensure that that did not happen in the islands.

Inspired by land-bank programs on the Massachusetts islands of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, Orcas Island photographer Peter Fisher proposed a way to make the problem become the solution: rely on the same subdivisions and sales that reduced open space to fund acquisition of public preserves by imposing a small tax on property transactions. Fisher presented the land-bank concept to the Board of County Commissioners in 1986. Commissioner Tom Cowan supported the idea and organized a series of meetings to discuss it with members of the islands' real-estate and business communities. Their recognition that creating a tax-supported land bank to preserve natural areas made economic sense was crucial to the ultimate success of the plan.

With real-estate and business backing, a local committee planning a San Juan County land bank eventually agreed on a 1 percent real-estate excise tax as its primary funding source. This tax rate was half that on the Massachusetts islands whose land banks served as models for the San Juan effort.

State Authority

While a land bank was taking clear shape in San Juan County, an important step in the process was missing, and it had to happen in Olympia. Counties' ability to levy any taxes rests on state law, so levying a new county excise tax would require amending the Revised Code of Washington.

Tom Cowan was experienced in state processes from serving on committees for state projects as a county commissioner. He took the locally developed and locally supported land-bank concept to the state legislature in late 1989. At that time, education was his mission, since he thought it would take the idea a long time to gain momentum at the state level, as it had in San Juan County. However, the progress of proposal, passage, and adoption of state legislation turned out to be dazzlingly swift.

Cowan's land-bank proposal almost immediately gained support from Republican Dan McDonald, the powerful chairman of the budget-writing Senate Ways and Means Committee. McDonald introduced Senate Bill No. 6639, "An Act relating to real estate excise taxes for the acquisition of local conservation areas," to the senate in late January 1990, along with a bipartisan group of 15 other senators. The bill made its way though committees in just a few weeks and was passed by the senate on March 9, 1990.

It then needed approval by a majority of the state House of Representatives. Democrat Joe King, known for his role in establishing the state Growth Management Act created by the legislature in that same session, was Speaker of the House. Tom Cowan later suggested that King viewed McDonald as a potential rival in the upcoming 1992 governor's race (both did run that year, losing in their respective primaries). Cowan commented in a 2013 interview that King may have been thinking that McDonald's initiating a new tax would harm the Republican's bid for governor.

Whatever brought about the cooperation across party lines, King led in supporting adoption of the bill, which gained final passage in the House on March 27 and was signed into law by Governor Booth Gardner (1936-2013) on March 30.

The new law allowed any county in Washington to impose a real-estate excise tax to be paid by the buyer on each sale of real property. The rate could not exceed 1 percent of the selling price. Revenues from the tax could be used solely to fund acquisition and maintenance of conservation areas. The law defined a "conservation area" as:

"[L]and and water that has environmental, agricultural, aesthetic, cultural, scientific, historic, scenic, or low-intensity recreational value for existing and future generations, and includes, but is not limited to, open spaces, wetlands, marshes, aquifer recharge areas, shoreline areas, natural areas, and other lands and waters that are important to preserve flora and fauna" (1990 Wash. Laws Ch. 5, Sec. 2).

County Ordinance

Once the state law took effect on July 1, 1990, it was up to San Juan's county commissioners -- Cowan, Bruce Orchid, and William LaPorte -- to establish a land bank and send county voters a measure implementing the conservation excise tax that the law authorized. On September 5, 1990, they did so by approving Ordinance No. 142-1990, "An Ordinance Establishing a Citizens Conservation Land Bank and Methods for Acquiring and Managing Open Space and Conservation Areas in San Juan County."

The board made findings in support of the ordinance, including that "San Juan County possesses an abundance of natural resources in the form of forests, waters, shorelines, wildlife, scenic and historic areas, environmentally sensitive areas, wetlands, marshes, aquifer recharge areas, natural areas, and other lands and waters that are important for the preservation of flora and fauna;" that this "unique natural environment is important to the people of San Juan County and to the county's economy;" that "the demand on these resources is growing ..., placing greater stress on these areas, resulting in loss of areas of unique natural value; and, [t]hat public acquisition and preservation programs have not kept pace with the county's expanding population;" so "[t]hat if current trends continue, some critical natural areas and open spaces in the county will be lost forever" (Ordinance No. 142-1990).

The ordinance stated the commissioners' intention to place the question of approving a real-estate tax to fund the land bank on the November 1990 general-election ballot. Crafted to ensure a good fit with local conditions, it required that the tax had to be renewed by voters at least every 12 years. The ordinance also created a Land Bank Commission, to be established following voter approval of the tax, consisting of seven citizen volunteers. Decisions, especially those about purchasing property, would be guided by the citizen commission and approved by the county commissioners.

Under the ordinance, in addition to real-estate-excise-tax proceeds, land bank revenue could come from donations, bond proceeds, grants, and lease fees. Only 10 percent of land bank funds could be spent on administration -- the rest would go to purchase and improvements, such as habitat restoration, trail development, and providing access.

San Juan County voters approved the the conservation excise tax on November 6, 1990, bringing the San Juan County Land Bank into being, and have since renewed the tax twice. In the 25 years since it was created, the San Juan County Land Bank established conservation areas encompassing more than 5,000 acres and 10 miles of shoreline across eight islands.

As of late 2014, 33 properties on three islands, encompassing 30,282 feet of saltwater shoreline and a total of 3,242 acres, had been purchased and preserved for public enjoyment. The land bank also held 41 conservation easements protecting agricultural uses or viewsheds, or providing public trail access and continuity, totaling 2,293 acres and 23,290 feet of saltwater shoreline. But despite the success of and support for the land bank in San Juan County, none of Washington's other 38 counties had utilized the land-bank authorization that the legislature granted to all counties at the request of San Juan activists.


San Juan County Ordinance No. 142-1990, "An Ordinance Establishing a Citizens Conservation Land Bank and Methods for Acquiring and Managing Open Space and Conservation Areas in San Juan County," September 5, 1990; 1990 Wash. Laws, 1st Ex. Sess., Ch. 5; Elizabeth Anderson interview with Tom Cowan, November 25, 2013; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "San Juan County Land Bank" (by Elizabeth Anderson), (accessed March 12, 2015).

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