By Nathan Isaacs, Herald staff writer
A group of hikers are lobbying to preserve public access to Mid-Columbia hiking areas and to preserve open spaces, particularly along the ridges of Badger and Red mountains. They also want Benton County commissioners to consider joining the state Conservation Futures program, which protects potential public land acquisitions from development.
"As our local communities grow, it is crucial to maintain the high quality of life that keeps so many of us here," said Mark Hoza. "If we continue building on the ridges and other open spaces, much of what we find so inviting in our area will soon be gone."
Hoza is a member of a group calling itself the Ridge Hikers, which was born from the Inter-Mountain Alpine Club Hiking Association. The group is focusing its initial efforts on Badger Mountain, but it also wants to preserve areas on Red Mountain and other Mid-Columbia ridges.
The group has an ally in landowner Sheldon Shore, who is selling 574 acres atop Badger Mountain. "I would prefer to sell it to this group than to a developer," he said. "I would love to see Badger Mountain turned into a park. It's the most prominent piece of property in the Tri-Cities."
County commissioners are expected to discuss the issue in coming weeks. A draft resolution is prepared that would create the conservation futures program within the county, contingent on the hiking group raising the money for the land purchase.
If the county creates the program, Hoza said, the group would work with the nonprofit Trust For Public Lands on purchasing the property. Andrea Fullerton, spokeswoman for the trust, said its expertise is purchasing real estate and it would work with willing land owners and the county if the program is created. She said her group also knows about state and federal grants and other financial options that could be used to buy land. Selling the land to the trust also has tax incentives for sellers, she added. "We work where there is a need for us to work," she said.
Shore is selling the Badger Mountain property as a single unit for $675,000. But, he said, developers have expressed interest in individual parcels. "I'm stalling," he said, "hoping to hear something from this group."
The Tri-Cities' hot economy and booming housing market can be measured by the number of homes inching up the side of Badger Mountain in south Richland. "It's easy to imagine Badger Mountain being built over, but it's hard to imagine the impact on the community of no longer having undeveloped ridge lines," Hoza said.
The state established the Conservation Futures program in 1971. It gives counties a tool to acquire lands important to the preservation of wildlife, natural character or other significant recreational, social, scenic or aesthetic values. The program allows counties to levy a tax up to 6.25 cents per $1,000 of assessed value of a home, or about $6.25 for a $100,000 home, to fund a local program.
A proposed bill, which stalled in the state Legislature, could increase that to up to 11 cents per $1,000 of assessed value. However, Hoza said his group only wants the program, not the tax, which many say could be a deal breaker. More than $25 million is expected to be collected statewide this year in the tax, according to the state Department of Revenue. King County's program will collect $12 million of that.
Ferry and Spokane counties are the only ones in Eastern Washington that use the program. In 1993, Spokane was the 10th county to adopt the program -- and the first in Eastern Washington. Voters renewed it in 1997 and 2002.
The Tri-Cities' exploding growth compares to Spokane County's when it instituted its program. In the early 1990s, residents were alarmed to discover that properties near popular parks that had been considered public actually weren't, and were being developed instead. In one case, the trees were being cut for lumber.
But last year, the 20 acres of land under the antennas were sold. Then another 75 acres were sold. And as developments on the mountain's flanks bring utilities, homes and people closer, the land becomes more valuable and more desirable.
Richland officials have noticed the growth and the emerging issue of land conservation. The city is looking to make a pre-emptive purchase of property in the area to be set aside for parks. City council members recently toured the area looking at potential park sites.
"There are a great many people that live in south Richland or that drive through the area ... that have an interest in protecting that view," said Bill King, deputy city manager.
One thing the city has done is include language in its parks master plan that would allow developers the option of creating denser projects at the mountain's base if the ridges and slopes are set aside for open space. It's just a concept at this point, but King said the density transfer option has been used elsewhere. "Some communities have used that program pretty successfully," he said.
The downside to the program is that while it protects view corridors, it doesn't necessarily open the land to public access. Tri-City developer Milo Bauder recently donated 16 acres on the southeast side of the mountain to the city of Richland. The property may be too steep to develop, but the donation is expected to help with the conservation program.
Hoza hopes to build momentum for the idea. "We realize that it needs broader support than those in the club," he said. If the program is created, Hoza said the group will contact other community groups. "It's only possible while the land is still for sale," he said. "This is probably our last chance at it. And then there will go our scenic Richland."