Benton OKs turning land into preserve

Benton OKs turning land into preserve

Hikers and nature enthusiasts can stop worrying about houses replacing the trails and shrub-steppe habitat on Badger Mountain bordering the southwestern edge of the Tri-Cities.

Benton County commissioners voted 2-1 Wednesday to set aside 574 acres along the crest and slopes of the mountain to preserve its “recreational, ecological and aesthetic values.”

Commissioner Max Benitz Jr. voted against the measure, saying he was concerned about the loss of property tax revenue.

“Our skylines are disappearing,” said commission Chairman Claude Oliver. “It’s a community statement preserving the hillside from having houses go all the way up.”

The Badger Mountain Centennial Preserve, as the proposed nature area had been named, has been purchased by a coalition of public and private interests from Badger Inc. for about $685,000. Badger Inc. is owned by Sheldon Shore of Pasco and a couple of other partners. The preserve will be managed by the county.

The state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council, which gives money for environmental preservation, contributed $485,000 to the purchase. Friends of Badger Mountain, a volunteer group formed by hikers, raised $75,000. The city of Richland contributed $100,000, while Benton County gave $25,000.

About 20 people attended the meeting Wednesday and applauded the commission’s action. Many were members of the Friends of Badger Mountain, which has worked for more than two years to preserve parts of Badger Mountain.

“The Friends of Badger Mountain are delighted,” said Mark Hoza, a group member.

Friends members started the organization to preserve traditional hiking areas they felt were being encroached upon by housing developments. A steady housing market has resulted in more and more houses creeping up the ridges of Badger and Red mountains.

But Benitz said he was concerned about property tax revenue lost by turning private property into a public preserve. He estimated the amount lost annually to be about $2,544, plus costs to control noxious weeds and maintain fire protection and law enforcement. He also said he believed the price of the land was too high.

Benitz suggested putting the issue on the November ballot to let voters decide whether the land should become a public preserve.

But Commissioner Leo Bowman said the process had been started by a citizens group and had gone through a public process. “The public has had lots of time for input, and I don’t ever recall anyone coming forward and saying, ‘No,’ ” he said.

Oliver also said he believed Shore could have subdivided the property and sold each lot separately, earning far more than $685,000 with the view from the ridges. He also said he believed tourism, wineries and other events in the county would make up for the lost revenue.

The sale of the property should be completed this month.

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