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San Juan County Land Bank

  • By Elizabeth Anderson
  • Posted 3/14/2015
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 11037

The San Juan County Land Bank was established in 1990 when county voters approved a new excise tax on real-estate sales to fund acquisition and stewardship of public lands. San Juan County, an archipelago of dozens of scenic islands in Northwest Washington, is the smallest of Washington's 39 counties in land area and the only one to create such a land bank. The conservation land bank was the result of efforts by a diverse group of islanders who shared the belief that views, natural habitats, and trails are essential to both the quality of life and the economy of the San Juan Islands. In the 1980s, as rapid population growth, subdivision, and construction threatened these aspects of island life, they suggested that the problem could fund the solution, by having a small percent of each real-estate transaction go toward conservation. At their request the state legislature authorized any county to adopt a conservation excise tax, allowing San Juan's Board of County Commissioners and voters to create the land bank. Since its creation, the San Juan County Land Bank has protected more than 5,000 acres of conservation land and 10 miles of shoreline.

The Setting

San Juan County contains less than 175 square miles of land scattered across dozens of islands. The archipelago is located in the Salish Sea, north of Puget Sound, between the Washington mainland and Vancouver Island, British Columbia. The San Juans are generally hilly with fertile valleys in between the higher elevations. The coastlines are a mix of sandy and rocky beaches, shallow and deep harbors, and placid and reef-studded bays.

The San Juan Islands, along with neighboring islands, portions of Vancouver Island, and the shoreline of what is now Northwest Washington, have been home for thousands of years to peoples identified by present-day anthropologists as Northern Straits Salish. For generations, they hunted, cultivated and collected camas and other nutritional or useful plants, and developed a highly successful method of harvesting salmon along the islands' shores. New settlers who began arriving in the mid-1800s also used the products of the soil and sea to make their livings: timber, lime quarries to feed high-temperature kilns, small farms, and fishing. In the early twenty-first century, a few apple, cherry, and pear trees remain from the orchards established when island farms were major suppliers of mainland markets. By the late 1800s many islanders, including a fair number with Salish heritage, were part of the huge fishing industry that stretched all along the Pacific coast to Alaska.

With the land mostly open, islanders became accustomed to an abundance of locations for recreation, enjoying beaches, picnics on small islands, and hilltop and shoreline outlooks. Land ownership was seldom a reason to block access by neighbors.

A Changing Landscape

Beginning in the 1960s, growing national prosperity and two post-World War II transportation developments that made travel between the islands and mainland considerably easier -- Washington's newly established state car-ferry system and the inauguration of regular air transportation -- fostered a rising tide of tourists to the San Juans. Drawn by the quiet, the magnificent horizons, and the inland waterways laced among dozens of islands, some new residents came looking for a more rustic lifestyle. But others expected the patterns and customs of the suburban areas they already knew.

The combination of car-ferry and air access, a cascade of visitors, and relatively inexpensive land prices stimulated housing sales and division of old farms. New parcels were carved out to meet an escalating demand for new homes. Visitor accommodations and merchandise for tourists began to flourish. The Port of Friday Harbor was expanded for more transient moorage as boating's popularity soared, and voters on Orcas and Lopez islands each formed public port districts solely to operate airports on their island. The industrial maritime operations of the Roche Harbor lime works awoke to a new era of resort development, which has continued to expand, with retail, housing, events, and large recreational boat docks.

Marketing shoreline properties became an important strategy to support the economy and build the tax base. Brown Island, located at the entrance to Friday Harbor and once a popular picnic and camping spot, was subdivided and sold for private use only. Cape San Juan, out past American Camp at the southeast tip of San Juan Island, was similarly converted. Jobs in construction, business, real estate, and tourism -- all contributed to a rapid population rise.

Between 1960 and 1965, San Juan County's population grew by only 8 percent, but in the next five years it jumped by nearly 25 percent. Then in the 1970s, the county's population nearly doubled, climbing by 40 percent in the first five years and by another 45 percent from 1975 to 1980 (a five-year period in which overall state population grew only 15.8 percent). Real-estate sales, and subdivision of previously open land, soared along with the population.

During the 1980s, several county residents who had witnessed how rapidly the countryside could vanish under development pressure elsewhere in the West became concerned with locally accelerating intrusions on views and constraints on recreational opportunities. Some had also observed how a thoughtful government process, developed in two East Coast island counties, could preserve significant places for everyone to continue to enjoy.


On Orcas Island, photographer Peter Fisher began talking to people about stewardship of the islands and the ethics of preserving views and public trails. The San Juans had private non-profit organizations such as the Trust for Public Land to fund natural-resources conservation at that time. But conservation did not include much public access.

Fisher found models in land-bank programs on the islands of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts. Their strategy was to make the problem become the solution. The same subdivision and sales activity that created more buildings and fences could generate funds to buy tracts of land or easements to maintain scenic vistas, agricultural use, or public access to shorelines.

Land-bank promoters in the San Juans advocated funding new purchases of public land by means of a tax placed on real-estate transactions. This tax would not only be a very small percentage of the purchase price, it would be collected from the new owner, rather than from the seller. New residents would contribute to maintaining some of the qualities that had attracted them to the islands.

In the San Juan County Comprehensive Plan, Fisher found four land-use goals focused on conservation. In 1986 he presented the land-bank concept to the Board of County Commissioners as a means to meet these conservation planning goals. The board's response was favorable, but its formal recommendation amounted to "good luck."

Gathering Support

Undaunted, Fisher continued making presentations about the benefits of a land bank at schools and to civic, environmental, and political groups. County Commissioner Tom Cowan supported the potential land bank, and he organized a series of breakfast meetings to talk it over with a critical group of stakeholders -- members of the real estate and business communities. The natural beauty and openness of the islands was and is a major attraction to tourism and development. Real-estate and business insight into the economics of establishing a land bank to maintain the natural and rural aspects of the county was invaluable.

In the 1980s, the county formed a committee on open-space protection. The local land trust and the Friends of the San Juans advocacy group understood and promoted the advantages of a county land bank to do more than preserve habitats. Land Trust President Bob Myhr and others added their support to educational and political efforts. As a result of their awareness campaigns, enough people in the county became concerned about potential loss of important aspects of their way of life that the land-bank solution gained momentum.

Local awareness was also jolted by losses on the natural landscape. Many islanders were shocked when part of Mitchell Hill near English Camp on San Juan Island was logged.

How Would It Work?

A land bank is established by a local government to acquire properties using public funds. A land bank remains responsible for stewardship in the public interest and will maintain the properties in its care. When the land is available for public use, improvements such as trails, signs, and information fall within the land bank's stewardship mandate. Land banks also may establish easements on private land. Easements are a cooperative agreement with landowners to protect a particular public value such as a view, natural habitat, historic landmark, or continued local small-scale farming. Narrow easements can be used as trails to connect public lands.

While the principal source of public funds for a land bank is a tax on real-estate transactions, private donations, grants, and interest income can provide additional revenue to support purchase and operations. Land banks can partner with private organizations and with state or federal agencies for acquisition or stewardship in the public interest.

With all this in mind, the local committee working to establish a land bank in the San Juans agreed that the primary source of funding would be a 1 percent real-estate excise tax paid by purchasers of property in the county. While modeled on the programs in Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, local innovators chose a land-bank tax only half the amount paid on those islands.

Creating the Land Bank

In order for the county to impose any new tax, the state legislature had to amend state law, which gives counties their authority to levy taxes. Tom Cowan, who had experience in state processes from involvement as a county commissioner, took the land-bank concept to the legislature in late 1989, expecting that it would take some time to gain momentum there. As it turned out, the adoption of state legislation was remarkably swift. In less than two months, the bill passed both houses of the legislature and was signed into law by Governor Booth Gardner (1936-2013).

With the state law set to take effect on July 1, 1990, supporters back in the San Juans wanted to establish a land bank and the mechanism to fund it on that November's ballot. But they also wanted to make sure that the timing was right and it would pass. A public opinion survey about the future of the San Juans was circulated to all registered voters. An impressive 72 percent of the surveys were returned (professional surveyors consider 5 percent a good return) and the results showed 60 percent support for establishing land bank.

On September 5, 1990, the Board of County Commissioners enacted an ordinance creating a land bank and calling for the question of approving a real-estate tax to fund it to be placed on the November 6, 1990, general-election ballot. County voters approved the measure in that election, bringing the San Juan County Land Bank into being.

Why Only San Juan?

San Juan County is the only county in Washington that has levied this excise tax to date, 25 years after counties were authorized to do so. San Juan real-estate professionals have found that a conservation area maintaining a view shed or a local hiking trail sustains property values through the years. But about a dozen other efforts to establish a land bank (or REET -- "Real Estate Excise Tax" -- as it was named in some counties) around the state have each met opposition from local real-estate communities.

While other counties have more landmass and a greater proportion of open space, San Juan County's economy and appeal is based on its scenic and ecological resources. Even with its many-faceted interface of land and water and abundant sprinkling of islands, San Juan is still the smallest of Washington's counties in area. The 2010 U.S. census counted 15,769 residents in the county's less than 175 square miles of land area, giving it a population density of 90 people per square mile, the 10th most densely populated of the state's 39 counties. And the resident count does not begin to include the thousands of annual visitors.

The land has been intensively divided into approximately 18,000 tax parcels, but the perception of the islands remains rural. The accomplishments of the land bank have contributed significantly to the continuing rural character of the islands.

"San Juan County has one of the lowest percentages of publicly owned lands in western Washington at 18 percent. By contrast, public lands in Clallam, Snohomish, and Skagit counties exceed 60 percent. In Whatcom it's close to 70. As the population of the islands grows, our community must plan carefully to ensure that we are caring for our natural heritage and leaving that legacy for future generations. The desire to take in a mountain top view, observe a whale pod from a rocky shore, or follow a peaceful forest trail is part of the essence of this place. Having access to areas to do those things is a gift. The Land Bank, honoring our mission, will continue to make this happen when we can" (2008 Annual Report).

Basis for Success

Ruth Mahan, the first San Juan County Land Bank director, observed in 2013:

"[It is] sad other communities in the state did not take advantage of the opportunity. San Juan County is lucky because the people who worked to get the legislation had that vision. I look around and think: Oh, I wish the land bank had been 10 years earlier! Some development could have been shaped in a more creative way. Unless people are paying close attention to the land bank's work, along with that of the preservation trust and other public and private organizations, they may not realize that the San Juan Islands would be a very different place today" (Mahan interview).

Strong public support was indicated by the vote to establish the land bank, but non-supporters were still very outspoken. After three or four years of hard work to earn community trust, evidence of success appeared at a meeting where someone said, "I don't support what you're doing, but I believe you are doing it well and appropriately" (Mahan interview). Mahan understood that to mean: Since we have a tax, I believe that the way you are making decisions about spending the money is fair, appropriate, and in the public interest.

Still, it took time to bring projects to closure. Initially some members of the public were reluctant to form partnerships with a public agency, even to protect resources they valued. Relationships cultivated with property owners became foundations for projects that were completed 15 or 20 years later. People gained confidence as they observed neighbors and friends safely negotiate sales of easements that protected their property and set it aside for a specific use.

The land bank formed partnerships with complementary organizations. Land bank staff and commissioners worked on common goals with the Preservation Trust, the Trust for Public Land, the federal Bureau of Land Management, and the state departments of Parks and Recreation and Fish and Wildlife to set priorities and collaborate on acquisitions. An intrinsic component of organizational development, which became a tradition in the land bank, is public input and involvement. Mahan said:

"When you listen and get input and process that input thoroughly and attentively, you do a better job. This is particularly important in the San Juans. It often seemed that it was really easy for San Juan islanders to tie themselves in knots about something, with so many extreme positions that no one could get anything done" (Mahan interview).

She advised anyone in similar circumstances to avoid spending time on controversial projects. "Look for projects where there is already much appreciation for the place. Don't spend too much time in debate wasting time that could be spent on other projects" (Mahan interview).

"In first year, we sought what were most precious places to people of each island" (Mahan interview). Working with the Preservation Trust, land bank staff took topographical maps to small gatherings of people who knew their island well. Together, they spent a few hours poring over the maps, going around the entire shorelines and through interiors. The local experts identified important areas and shared their stories. The resulting mental "overlay map" of culture and remembered history created appreciation of each island, which is part of the land bank operation.


The mandate of the San Juan County Land Bank is "[t]o preserve in perpetuity areas in the county that have environmental, agricultural, aesthetic, cultural, scientific, historic, scenic or low-intensity recreational value, and to protect existing and future sources of potable water" ("Our Mandate," SJC Land Bank website).

By the end of 2014, the land bank had established public lands on eight islands, often by stitching parcels together in a sustained effort over the years. It both purchased land preserves and entered into agreements for conservation easements on other properties. Land preserved by purchase for public enjoyment totaled 33 properties on three islands, encompassing 30,282 feet of saltwater shoreline and a total of 3,242 acres. In addition, the land bank 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.

Three properties are illustrative of what the land bank preserved:

Turtleback Mountain Preserve, Orcas Island: The 2006 purchase of Turtleback Mountain, a prominent landmark on the west side of Orcas Island, preserved the 1,576-acre property as a conservation area open to the public. The land bank contributed $10 million to a fundraising campaign that raised a total of $18.5 million -- "the largest fundraising campaign ever undertaken in San Juan County" ("Conservation Partnership ...") -- to fund the $17 million purchase and ongoing preservation and maintenance. Support came from far beyond the islands, thanks in part to a cartoon created by well-known comic-strip artist Gary Larson (The Far Side) in support of the campaign. The land bank described the preserve as follows:

"Treasured by islanders for its dark, undeveloped ridgeline, it is a refuge for wildlife and a haven for those who wander the trails through a mosaic of forests, wetlands and open meadows. ... Sheltering a variety of special habitats and species, the preserve is ecologically significant as well as beautiful. Grasslands and Garry oak woodlands cover the mountain’s dry southern slopes, while conifer forest blankets the remainder. ... Turtleback Mountain is visible from many vantage points throughout the county and beyond. ... Turtleback is also a recreational resource. Its high meadows and rocky ledges provide unparalleled views of the San Juan and Canadian Gulf Islands. There are a variety of trails for hiking, bird watching, and nature observation" ("Turtleback Mountain Preserve," SJC Land Bank website).

Westside preserves, San Juan Island: Areas around Lime Kiln State Park on San Juan Island were subdivided for sale in the 1980s and 1990s, but they were a priority for use of public funds gathered by the land bank. In a series of separate transactions between 1993 and 2007, the land bank created a protected corridor extending along the shoreline south of the state park as well as protecting interior areas east and north of the park, in three separate preserves: Westside Scenic Preserve, Deadman Bay Preserve, and Limekiln Preserve. The preserves protect rich habitat along the rocky shoreline and surrounding Westside Lake, and the high bluffs provide views across Haro Strait -- and of the whales and other marine life that frequent the area. The preserved shoreline "also has ecological significance as a remnant of an ancient prairie ecosystem" ("Westside Scenic Preserve," SJC Land Bank website)

Watmough Bay Preserve, Lopez Island: Watmough Bay is a small indentation notched into a coastline of high bluffs covered with old-growth Douglas fir on southeast Lopez Island. The preserve and an adjacent portion of the San Juan Islands National Monument protect more than 400 acres and are cooperatively managed for trails and habitat preservation. A short, shady walk from a parking area leads to a small lovely beach with views of Mount Baker framed by cliffs and forested hills. More trails encircle a freshwater marsh, wander along Point Colville to the south, and steeply ascend Chadwick Hill to the north. The Watmough Bay Preserve was protected through the efforts of the San Juan Preservation Trust, gifts of land from two property owners, a grant from the state Salmon Recovery Funding Board, and hundreds of private donations.


The land bank does not just acquire land and arrange easements or agreements for continued use. An important part of its mandate is stewardship and management. State law includes management when it grants the counties the authority to acquire conservation areas. The San Juan County Code chapter governing the county land bank, as drafted by the commissioners and approved by voters, adds a section on stewardship and maintenance, including a requirement for "a stewardship and management plan for each discrete parcel/property interest which summarizes the annual, five-year and 10-year maintenance/improvement program in both substantive and financial terms" (SJCC Sec. 2.120.120).

Crafted to ensure a good fit with the local conditions, the code requires that the tax the funds the land bank be renewed at least every 12 years. As of 2015, county voters have renewed it twice. Under the code, San Juan County Land Bank decisions, especially those about purchasing property, are guided by a citizen commission, which holds monthly public meetings. Decisions are approved by the county council.

In addition to real estate excise tax proceeds, revenues can come from donations, bond proceeds, grants, and lease fees. Only 10 percent of land bank funds can be spent on administration -- the rest goes into purchase and improvements, such as habitat restoration, trail development and providing access. The land bank operates with a small staff, a volunteer board of commissioners, and a widespread base of community volunteers who assist with field work.

Habitat preservation and restoration in the nearshore waters, pocket prairielands, and woodlands are all components of stewardship. At the 130-acre Cady Mountain Preserve on San Juan Island, the land bank initiated a major longterm habitat-restoration effort for the endangered Garry oak. The Cady Mountain oak habitat, maintained over hundreds of years by Salish land-management techniques, which included periodic burning to keep the meadows open and abundant in useful food plants, had become overrun with Douglas fir trees, which choked out other vegetation and shaded and acidified the soil, as a result of fire suppression and other changes following the arrival of new settlers in the nineteenth century. Volunteer labor played a central role in the heavy work of clearing away the firs, restoring the open woodlands, and planting seedlings and acorns.

Land bank stewardship practices have included increasing public access that minimally disturbs the land, such as building trails and providing a few signs to enhance knowledge of site-specific cultural and natural history. In 2013 the land bank built a bird blind for watching the water fowl that inhabit the still ponds in the Limekiln Preserve on San Juan Island, providing yet another opportunity for quiet appreciation of the landscape and wildlife.


As of early 2015, the San Juan County Land Bank was involved with a number of projects. It hoped to acquire the fee interest in Mount Ben Preserve on San Juan Island -- more than 12 acres of undeveloped forestland and open meadows -- from the Preservation Trust to preserve its outstanding views, habitats, and opportunities for public access. On Lopez Island, the land bank was working to establish a conservation easement on the Buffam/Kjargaard Farm, which was first homesteaded in 1871. The property would remain in use for cattle grazing and cereal crops. The fields are highly visible and serve as a visual gateway to one of the prime farming areas of Lopez Island.

Securing two more properties to permit restoration of Beaverton Marsh, located within walking distance of Friday Harbor, was another goal. Invasive reed canary grass had to be removed. The wetland had been filled, but could be restored and access provided with boardwalks. The project would be costly, but is in a very accessible location and is in the tradition of walking and connecting places.

Land bank director Lincoln Bormann observed in 2013, "With more people here, we will need more public places. Acquisition and the funds for it will be needed" (Bormann interview). Reflecting on the value of the Westside reserves, Bormann noted that the west side of San Juan Island offers sunsets and land-based whale watching, which is free and, in contrast to boats in pursuit of whale sightings, protects the animals' habitat and range:

"Orcas come right up that shoreline; they are a major reason why people come here at all. Looking down and seeing the entire whales in the clear water is a world-class experience. It is more than just a view. The San Juan Islands need places for people to go" (Bormann interview).


San Juan County Land Bank website accessed March 12, 2015 (http://sjclandbank.org/); San Juan County Land Bank Annual Reports for 2008, 2012, 2013, and 2014 (copies available at http://sjclandbank.org/reports.html); "Conservation Partnership Acquires Turtleback Mountain on Orcas Island," press release, November 15, 2006 (copy available at http://sjclandbank.org/turtle_back.html); San Juan County Land Bank Commission minutes, 1992, 1993, 1995, 1996, San Juan County Land Bank records, Friday Harbor, Washington; "Research & Data," Washington State Office of Financial Management website accessed March 12, 2015 (http://www.ofm.wa.gov/forecasting/default.asp); San Juan County Comprehensive Plan, June 9 2009, Appendix 1, Population Projections, Buildout Analysis and Land Use Inventory, San Juan County Land Bank website accessed March 12, 2015 (http://www.co.san-juan.wa.us/Planning/docs/CompPlanAppendices/2009_Appx1_Popu-LU-Inv.doc.pdf); Elizabeth Anderson interview with Doug McCutcheon, October 28, 2013; Elizabeth Anderson interview with Lincoln Bormann, December 10, 2013; Elizabeth Anderson telephone interview with Ruth Mahan, December 12, 2013; Elizabeth Anderson interview with Tom Cowan, November 25, 2013; Elizabeth Anderson telephone interview with Peter Fisher, December 7, 2013; Our Campaigns website accessed March 12, 2015 (http://www.ourcampaigns.com/CandidateList.html); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "San Juan County -- Thumbnail History" (by Kit Oldham), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed March 12, 2015); 1990 Wash. Laws, 1st Ex. Sess., Ch. 5; 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; San Juan County Code Chapter 2.120, "San Juan County Land Bank."

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