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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.

Friendly Preservation

Friends of Badger Mountain are approaching preservation in a model way: Identify a community concern, find a willing land owner, get diverse groups involved and gather grassroots support. And Friends is tackling it in short order. Last month, the group of Tri-City hiking enthusiasts announced it had negotiated an agreement to buy 574 acres on the crest and slopes of Badger Mountain now owned by Sheldon Shore of Pasco and a couple of other partners. Preservation of open spaces has been a growing concern during the recent Tri-City building boom, as neighborhoods in Richland and Pasco showed last year when they mobilized to oppose proposed sales of publicly owned land. Now, local conservationists are working with The Trust for Public Land to collect the $700,000 necessary to buy the Badger Mountain property. Friends of Badger Mountain is hoping to show local support for the project by raising $75,000 from local individuals and businesses by Dec. 15. That's a tall order for a volunteer group that is less than two years old. But as of Friday, the group had raised well over $40,000. (To donate, e-mail [email protected] or call 375-5705.) Indeed, the Badger Mountain group has a big circle of friends. With assistance in some form or another from the city of Richland, Benton County, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Lower Columbia Basin Audubon Society and the Tri-Cities Visitor and Convention Bureau, there is a diverse set of partners pursuing the project. Add the state's Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council to that list. Last year, Bonneville Power Administration gave the council $3.5 million in exchange for the lifting of a requirement that land beneath two unfinished nuclear power plants north of Richland be returned to its original condition. BPA now has until 2029 to partially restore the site, and the state has money to spend on preserving shrub steppe in and around Benton County. When a potential land purchase elsewhere in Benton County fell through, the energy council began looking more seriously at Badger Mountain. The council could end up being a big donor to the project. If so, preservation of a piece of Badger Mountain would be, in a roundabout way, a legacy of the Washington Public Power Supply System debacle that left the nuclear plants unfinished. Friends of Badger Mountain might end up with another ingredient for a successful project: A great story to tell.

Ridge Preservation Deserves Support

The Tri-City landscape is defined as much by the hills above as the rivers through it. Rattlesnake Mountain. Jump Off Joe Butte. Red Mountain. Flat Top. Horse Heaven. Badger Mountain. Most mornings, slanting rays of sunlight cast shadows that bring the creases and folds along the vast slopes into stark relief. In the evenings, the hills form dark silhouettes against the streaks of sunset's flaming colors, form and light each enhancing the other. Subtle changes in the arid plant life clinging to the hillsides mark our changing seasons. The vistas, when we stop long enough to consider them, are dramatic. And endangered. The fact is, the ridge lines won't all survive the community's growth untouched. Homes and roads will reach higher with each surge in construction. But it's possible to preserve parts. Benton County commissioners took a step in that direction earlier this week, voting 2-1 to endorse efforts to save 575 acres atop Badger Mountain. Commissioner Max Benitz and other opponents to the proposal aren't making sense. The rights of landowner Sheldon Shore aren't threatened by the plan. He wants the property sold as a single parcel and preserved as a park. Taxes aren't involved, even though the purchase of park lands is a legitimate use of public money. Instead, the $675,000 deal, being brokered with the help of the nonprofit Trust For Public Lands, depends on donations and grants, not local tax dollars. What's more, the impetus isn't coming from Washington, D.C., or even Western Washington. The drive comes from local hikers who want to ensure that the open spaces they enjoy aren't entirely lost to future generations. Opposition is as baffling as the views are inspiring.

Measure Aims to Save Open Space

By Nathan Isaacs, Herald staff writer Benton County commissioners Monday adopted a resolution supporting efforts to preserve Mid-Columbia open spaces from development, particularly along the ridges of Badger Mountain. The resolution stops short of the county creating a Conservation Futures program, allowed under state law, but does endorse the program's concept. A group of hiking enthusiasts now plans to use the county's support in its efforts to raise money to purchase about 575 acres atop the visual landmark. "Our objective is to preserve Badger Mountain as open space to that the citizens of the Tri-Cities can enjoy the features of the mountain in the years to come," said Mark Hoza, a member of the hikers group. Commissioner Max Benitz Jr. opposed the resolution, saying the county already had enough open land for the public. "There isn't anyone who enjoys the outdoors more than I," he said. "But I can't ask the citizens of Benton County to have more and more government controlling private land." Former Benton County Commissioner Bob Drake also voiced dissent on the resolution, saying, "It appears the commissioners are falling into a trap of the taxpayers money." If someone wants to protect open spaces, Drake said, he should do it on his own. However, Hoza said the hikers group doesn't intend that the county spend taxpayers' money. He said the group would maintain the property if it's bought and donated to the county. Before adopting the resolution, commissioners Claude Oliver and Leo Bowman made sure the county's risk to liability and maintenance on future purchases was minimal. The state created 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. Thirteen counties use the program, most in Western Washington. Ferry and Spokane counties are the only ones in Eastern Washington that use the program. The hikers 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 Badger Mountain property is being sold as a single unit for $675,000. Hoza said the group would work with the nonprofit Trust For Public Lands on purchasing the property. Hoza said the group would seek private donations as well as state and federal grants to buy the land. Commissioner Claude Oliver suggested money from the county's park development fund could also be contributed to the effort.

Land Preservers

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."