Open space, or green space, has long been recognized as an essential part of a livable community, first as a place to escape urban noise and pollution, and later as a means to shape land use and to protect plant and wildlife habitats. During the first several decades of King County's existence, population density remained low enough that open space was not a concern. By the 1890s, however, it became clear to some that land in King County needed to be reserved as open space for city dwellers and to protect resources. As the county's cities and towns more, particularly after World War II, and as Americans' environmental attitudes evolved, efforts to protect open space increased. One of these efforts, the Farmland Preservation Program, led the King County Council to adopt the Conservation Futures property tax in 1982 to fund the acquisition of conservation easements. The council later authorized bond issues backed by the tax and annual allocation of the program's revenues. During the past 30 years, the Conservation Futures program has allowed the county to acquire tens of thousands of acres to protect recreational lands, wildlife and rare plant habitat, and green spaces that help shape development.
Early Open Space Acquisition
Public open space acquisition, though it was not called that until the middle of the twentieth century, began in King County in the 1890s. The City of Seattle acquired land at Landsburg, on the Cedar River in eastern King County, for the city's water supply intake in 1898. The next year, the federal government withdrew federal land in the Cedar River watershed from further disposal through sale or by grant, allowing the city's water department to begin consolidating control of the watershed to protect water quality and quantity. Around the turn of the century, the federal government placed thousands of acres in eastern King County into the Snoqualmie National Forest.
Seattle's Board of Park Commissioners began to develop park system plans in the 1890s, though an economic recession prevented the acquisition of park land. The impetus for the planning efforts, however, lay in the belief that cities needed to develop parks to offer a respite from the bustle of crowds and industry. Not only would the city's residents enjoy the parks, they would become better citizens through their interaction with nature.
The onset of the Klondike Gold Rush in 1897 led to exponential economic and population growth in Seattle, from 42,837 in 1890 to 237,194 in 1910. The increased population density and a broader tax base allowed park development to move forward. In 1903, the Board of Park Commissioners hired the Olmsted Brothers landscape architecture firm, bringing John C. Olmsted (1852-1920), stepson and nephew of New York's Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. (1822-1903), to Seattle. Olmsted's citywide park and boulevard system provided the city with large community parks, connected by boulevards, and smaller neighborhood parks. Voters approved bonds to fund the first acquisitions in 1906.
The first park plans for King County were developed as part of a city plan created in 1911 by Virgil Bogue (1846-1916), a civil engineer hired by the Municipal Plans Commission. Bogue, anticipating a "Greater Seattle," extended Olmsted's park and boulevard concept to the county, called for large parks along the Puget Sound shoreline, on lakes, and near communities, and for boulevards to provide access to them. Bogue also recommended that then-sparsely settled Mercer Island be acquired for one large park, writing: "It would indeed be a fitting climax to all park possibilities and commensurate with the greatness of her opportunity and destiny, if Seattle should ultimately acquire Mercer Island and set aside this 4,000 acres as an island park -- a people's playground, worthy of the city of millions which will some day surround Lake Washington" (Bogue, 47). Seattle voters rejected Bogue's plan, but a number of his ideas would appear in later planning documents.
Official county planning for acquiring public open space began with the report of the King County Planning Commission in 1927. The commission recommended the development of a public acquisition plan:
"We have within the bounds of our county all the splendors to be found in the world, in greater abundance than is to be found in any similar area and in such state that it can be safely said that a development could be fostered and carried out at a far less expense than possible anywhere else in the country. Lakes and rivers, waterfalls, mountains covered with foliage and capped with snow and ice; centers where summer and winter sports could abound, all at our feet. Forests yet untouched that need protection and preservation. All of these things should be considered carefully in the planning of future development and it is most important to consider the creation of recreational areas before the pressure of growth and the greed of individuals commercialize the lands having the most desirable natural beauty and accessibility to our lakes and rivers. It is obvious that your Honorable Board [of County Commissioners] should be empowered to make a small levy, for the securing of funds with which to purchase certain of these territories for the development of recreational areas and breathing spaces" ("Report of the King County Planning Commission," 8).
The Great Depression soon followed, which may explain why no such levy was imposed. A new planning commission report, issued in 1938, called for the retention of marginal lands that had been repeatedly lost to taxes and did not support viable farming operations. The commission argued that these lands could be reforested (they had often been cleared of trees prior to cultivation of crops or pasturing animals) or used for parks rather than resold to yet another farmer. The report also noted that less than 10 percent of King County's land was suitable for farming, "so it is particularly important that this land be utilized to the best advantage" (Report of the Planning Commission, 7).
In 1937 King County, taking advantage of a state law granting new powers to counties, formed a park district and approached community clubs that owned and operated park lands and facilities to propose that they donate their properties to the county. The county could take advantage of a Works Progress Administration program that provided labor to develop recreation facilities on publicly-owned lands. By 1938, the county had 30 parks, including a large boys' camp at Enumclaw, playfields, docks, and a number of community center buildings.
Too Little, Too Late?
World War II brought significant changes in King County's growth and development. Land that had been largely rural saw large influxes of new residents. More automobiles, better roads, increased public utilities, and newcomers who came to work at Boeing and in other area industries led to the increased development of former agricultural and forest lands. In 1951, the Puget Sound Study Group, made up of regional planning and parks agencies, community clubs, and the Seattle Municipal League, published a report titled Too Little! And Too Late?: Public Beaches, Parks & Parkways. The report exhorted the public to realize the imperative need to plan for public waterfront access, forested areas for parks, playgrounds, and parkways for access to beaches and parks. Recalling the foresight of the Olmsted park system plan and the ideas embodied in the 1912 Plan of Seattle, the group called for a county-wide parks plan.
In the 1950s and early 1960s several park properties were developed. In 1959, King County's planning department conducted a survey of the county's natural resources, including agricultural land, water resources, fisheries, forests, minerals, and wildlife, to inform their planning decisions.
King County adopted its first modern comprehensive plan in 1964. The plan identified open space and recreation goals that would "insure relief within the urban environment, provide sufficient space for passive and active recreation, and help curb the spread of urban blight and deterioration" (Comprehensive Plan). Though the plan included wildlife habitat in the definition of open space, it focused on human benefits of environmental protection, such as playfields, shoreline access, and regional parks.
Open space planning and acquisition gained momentum in the late 1960s as public attitudes toward the environment shifted. Historian Samuel P. Hays links that shift to higher standards of living and higher education levels achieved after World War II, which allowed people to spend more money on amenities. Americans began to place more value on having access to places for recreation and on living in healthy environments.
Most laws dealing with the environment before World War II focused on conservation of natural resources. This led to laws protecting forests, establishing soil conservation programs, and limiting hunting. After the war, Congress shifted its focus to environmental health, culminating in a series of laws in the 1960s and 1970s, including the Wilderness Act of 1964, the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, the Clean Water Acts of 1960, 1965, and 1972, and the Clean Air Acts of 1963, 1967, and 1970.
The state saw a similar spate of environmental laws passed in the 1960s and 1970s. Washington's legislature passed the State Environmental Policy Act in 1971, extending the national act's environmental protections to projects involving state agencies. Additionally, the legislature created several programs for funding the acquisition of recreation and open space lands. One of the most important of these, the Interagency Committee for Outdoor Education, utilized funds from the Marine Fuel Tax Refund Account to provide grants to cities and counties for the purchase of recreation lands.
The legislature also proposed an amendment to the state constitution, which voters approved in 1968, allowing "current use taxation." Prior to this, property tax assessments had to be based upon the most economically valuable possible use of a property. In practice this led to taxation of green space, forests, and farmlands that had access to urban infrastructure, such as roads or water systems, based on their potential value if developed, significantly increasing the tax burden. Current use taxation, which assessed land according to its current use, if the owners agreed not to develop a property for at least 10 years, gave landowners an alternative to developing or selling their land to create more income.
Republican Governor Dan Evans (b. 1925) included an environmental measure in a group of "Washington Future" bond referendums on the November 1972 ballot. The referendums, promoted as an economic stimulus and nearly all approved by voters, funded improvements to residential, industrial, and irrigation water systems; expansion of public health and rehabilitation facilities; construction of community college facilities; and park and green space acquisition.
In the midst of all this activity, a Republican representative from Kirkland, Alan Bluechel (b. 1924), introduced legislation, which passed in 1971, authorizing county governments to levy a small property tax to fund the acquisition of conservation easements (the purchase of development rights) over and outright purchases of open space such as park, forest, and agricultural lands. The program addressed the weaknesses of current use taxation and zoning restrictions, both of which lacked permanency, as means of preserving open space. Enrollment in the current use taxation program could be ended after 10 years if the owner chose to develop the land. Similarly, zoning only limited development until regulations were changed, and left owners seeing a loss of potential uses without receiving compensation.
The idea of using conservation easements in the United States dates to the 1890s, when the Massachusetts legislature allowed Boston to purchase rights to protect scenic views along the city's Frederick Law Olmsted-designed boulevard system, but had not been used widely since. William H. Whyte (1917-1999), an urbanologist famous for writing The Organization Man, popularized the idea of conservation easements in a 1959 article he wrote for the Urban Land Institute Technical Bulletin. Whyte discussed the English common law foundations for conservation easements and emphasized that the public should pay for limiting development on certain lands because the public benefits from the open space. He argued against using zoning laws or exercising eminent domain because both of those methods focused attention on taking away rights rather than on the benefits gained by the community from protected open space. In the 1960s a number cities adopted conservation easement programs.
Though Bluechel represented King County, and most likely had the county in mind when drafting the bill, the county did not immediately adopt the program. During the 1970s, most open space acquisition in the county was funded by a Forward Thrust bond, part of a package of public works bonds approved in 1968. The $118 million parks and recreation bond funded construction of a new Seattle aquarium, acquisition of new parks and recreation facilities throughout the county, and improvements to existing scenic drives and parks.
The new park acquisitions increased the county's park land by 4,000 acres and added 53 miles of waterfront access and riparian corridors, which served the county's booming post-war population well, but did not address the sprawling development that had come to characterize the region. King County's population nearly doubled from 504,980 to 935,014 between 1940 and 1960. In 1974, the United States Census Bureau reported that King County had lost about 70 percent of its farmland since 1945, falling from 165,000 acres to 51,000 acres. Increased availability of motor vehicles and new roads built after the war exacerbated the sprawl by allowing people to move farther from the train depots and steamship docks that had carried the majority of people and freight around King County.
During the 1970s, the Puget Sound Governmental Conference (today known as the Puget Sound Regional Council) began to study how development and population growth affected the agricultural economy in King, Snohomish, Pierce, and Kitsap counties. LeRoy Jones, a regional planner for the agency, wrote a report in 1974 describing agriculture in the Central Puget Sound region and the land base needed to sustain a viable agricultural economy. Additionally, Jones looked at the economic impacts of agriculture and found that, though not a large percentage of regional economic activity, it contributed significantly to the economy and provided diversity to the area's economic base, something planners appreciated anew in the era of the Boeing bust. Jones recommended preserving agricultural land using a Conservation Futures levy to preserve agricultural lands and promoting agriculture through minimizing nuisance laws and improving markets for agricultural products.
The King County Council responded to the situation by placing an 18-month moratorium on the subdivision of designated agricultural "Lands of County Significance" on March 7, 1976. The council acted out of concern that development might quickly cover enough farmland that the agricultural economy would no longer be viable. The council also cited the relative energy efficiency of locally grown foods, which required less transport, and of foods grown on fertile soils, requiring less petroleum-based fertilizers, to justify the moratorium.
In 1977, the county Office of Agriculture and the Agricultural District Advisory Commission collaborated to prepare an agricultural land preservation program. The plan called for the purchase of development rights on farmland in King County, protecting it in perpetuity, using $35 million in bonds to be repaid from the county's general fund. The county council accepted the plan, placing it on the September 1978 ballot for voter approval.
The Farmland Preservation Program, King County's first use of conservation easements, did not achieve voter approval easily, despite vigorous campaigning by the Save Our Local Farmlands Committee, led by James Ellis (b. 1921), well-known for his leadership in the Forward Thrust bond campaign, Scott Wallace (b. ca. 1926), a Snoqualmie Valley farmer, and Marilyn Ward (b. 1929), a community activist. In November 1978 the $35 million bond program fell just short of the required 60 percent approval. King County Executive John Spellman (1926-2018), a supporter of the program, asked for the formation of a citizen group to review the county's farmland preservation plans and to develop a new plan.
The Farmlands Study Committee produced a report in May 1979 outlining a $50 million bond program that prioritized agricultural land into three tiers and reiterating the voluntary nature of the program. One of the criticisms of the earlier bond measure had focused on its somewhat ambiguous wording that appeared to allow the county to force farmers to sell their development rights.
The Farmland Preservation Program went before the voters two more times before meeting all the electoral requirements for bonds in November 1979. Even then, however, the program did not move forward. At the time the ballot passed, county law required that bonds repaid out of the general fund pay no more than 8 percent interest, but bond interest rates hovered at about 12 percent in the early 1980s. The county council increased the interest rate ceiling after the election and the Farmland Preservation Program bond issue proceeded using the new rate limit. Opponents of the program filed a case against the county and courts upheld the earlier limit in place at the time of the vote.
The council decided to use councilmanic bonds, which are voted upon by the council, not the public, and which could be funded by revenue from a Conservation Futures levy, which the council adopted on September 7, 1982. This first $15 million of the $50 million program was used to acquire conservation easements on the highest priority lands in the Green and Sammamish river valleys and on Vashon Island. A combination of other bond issues funded the second tier of priority lands and the program acquired easements on 12,576 acres by 1985.
Soon after instituting the Conservation Futures tax to fund farmland preservation, the King County Council looked to the tax to fund other open space initiatives. In 1984, the Council used a portion of the Conservation Futures tax revenue to help fund the purchase of the first 2000 acres of the Cougar Mountain Regional Wildlands Park just outside Issaquah.
Formation of the park on Cougar Mountain had been sought since 1979, when the Issaquah Alps Trails Club was formed by environmental activist Harvey Manning (1925-2006), hiking enthusiast Bill Longwell (1936-2007), and Issaquah City Councilmember Tim O'Brian to promote the preservation of natural areas and the development of trail systems on Cougar, Squak, Tiger, Taylor, and Rattlesnake mountains. Cougar Mountain's forested slopes were threatened with development several times in the 1980s as Eastside communities grew into the Cascade foothills.
In the mid-1980s, public concern grew about the loss of green space and forests, and the rising costs of housing, energy, and county services, caused by sprawling growth. The county council responded to this concern by developing a new comprehensive plan. It established the county's first urban growth boundary and limited development to those areas already served by infrastructure such as water and sewer services.
Open Space Bonds
Additionally, the council initiated an open space program to identify open space resources that needed protection. A plan adopted in 1988 identified about 5,000 acres of open space and about 100 miles of trail corridors for acquisition within nine regional systems of open space associated with waterways or forest ecosystems. The plan also established new criteria for evaluating proposed open space acquisitions that placed more emphasis on natural system functions and wildlife habitat, in addition to human benefits.
In 1988, after voters rejected a $42 million open space bond measure, the council appointed a 25-member committee to develop a new measure. Gerald Johnson, a Seattle attorney and open space advocate, organized the committee of volunteers who had an interest in open space issues in the county. Gene Duvernoy (b. 1952), who had managed the Farmland Preservation Program, served as the campaign manager for the new ballot measure.
The committee chose lands for the new bond measure using council-mandated criteria that first considered whether a parcel met any of six qualifications based on the role it would play in the regional open space system. The criteria then required that the parcel meet at least three of six additional criteria, which included providing wildlife habitat, scenic resources, shoreline access, regional trails or natural linkages, community separation, recreation space, or agriculture space; or that it met one of the criteria exceptionally strongly. The new Open Space bond measure, passed by voters in 1989, authorized the issuance of bonds for $117.6 million and established a citizens oversight committee.
While the county council and the citizens committee developed the Open Space Bond program, the council passed ordinances codifying the use and management of a Conservation Futures Fund in 1989 and 1990. The council dedicated the Conservation Futures Fund to acquisition of the Open Space bonds properties until 1994. Rising land prices had increased the cost of acquiring all the properties identified in the 1989 bond measure beyond the authorized $117.6 million, so Conservation Futures funding was used to make up the difference. The ordinance also established a citizens selection committee for the Conservation Futures Fund, which began as a subcommittee of the Open Space citizens committee in 1990.
As the county began buying land using the Open Space bonds in 1990, the state legislature passed the Growth Management Act. The act required counties and some cities to develop comprehensive land use plans to accommodate projected growth for the succeeding 20 years. King County began to develop a new comprehensive plan, including a new parks, recreation, and open space plan.
The comprehensive plan adopted by the council in 1991 required that King County's cities cooperate with the county to identify, protect, and acquire open space and to create a regional open space system. To fund these efforts, the county and cities could use the Conservation Futures tax and in 1993 the county council passed an ordinance authorizing the issuance of $60 million in bonds to be repaid with Conservation Futures tax revenue. Three quarters of the $60 million was split equally between the county, the City of Seattle, and suburban cities. The last $15 million was allocated to regionally important projects.
In 1996, the county adopted a new open space plan that focused on environmental systems and shifted King County's role away from creating individual parks to creating open space corridors that "conserve natural resources and provide recreation opportunities, fish and wildlife habitat, and scenic beauty" (King County Park, Recreation and Open Space Plan, 1). The plan identified natural systems and functional systems that the county would work to make linkages within. The natural systems included the Cedar, Green, Snoqualmie, White, Sammamish, Bear-Evans, Issaquah, and Soos waterways; saltwater shorelines, and lakes. The functional systems included the regional trail system, the Mountains to Sound Greenway, urban separators, and active recreation parks (those with spaces designed for organized uses, such as soccer fields).
Also in the mid-1990s, preservation of salmon habitat gained new prominence as salmon runs in King County's rivers and creeks declined to dangerously low levels, making it likely that Puget Sound Chinook salmon runs would be listed as a threatened or endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. The county launched the Waterways 2000 program in 1995 to carry out pilot projects to rehabilitate waterways, improve salmon runs, and encourage collaboration between scientists, private stakeholders, communities, and landowners. Conservation Futures funds, along with Open Space bond funds, Real Estate Excise Tax revenue, and the county's general operating budget, paid for pilot projects in six high-priority basins: Bear Creek, the Middle Fork of the Snoqualmie River, the Middle Green River, the Lower Cedar River, Griffin Creek, and Patterson Creek.
In 1999, despite efforts by local and state governments, the U.S. Department of the Interior listed the Puget Sound Chinook runs in King County as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. In response, governments around the region organized Watershed Ecosystem Forums of Water Resource Inventory Areas to coordinate a number of efforts already underway and to create a plan for future projects to improve and protect the region's salmon populations. King County was included in Water Resource Inventory Areas 7, 8, 9, and 10, and Conservation Futures revenue was used regularly to fund purchases of shoreline and watershed land identified by the forum to protect water quality and salmon habitat.
During the 1990s, the selection of Conservation Futures acquisitions shifted to include more projects that protected open space primarily for the benefit of non-human organisms, in addition to those that offered primarily human-oriented benefits. This reflected an evolution in public attitudes toward a greater appreciation of the intrinsic value of land that plays an important role in overall ecosystem function.
The county council passed an ordinance in 2000 that formalized this shift in evaluating open space lands for Conservation Futures funding. The ordinance established that open space acquisitions by the county should evaluate a property's ability to provide wildlife habitat or rare plant reserve areas, protect salmon habitat and aquatic resources, preserve scenic resources, serve as a community separator, protect historic or cultural resources, protect an urban passive-use natural area or greenbelt, add to an existing park or open space system, or be part of a transfer of development rights program project.
In addition to a multitude of smaller projects, the county used Conservation Futures revenue to fund several large acquisitions, either to purchase land or to purchase conservation easements to reduce the purchase price to be paid by a third party, such as the State of Washington. In 1999, the historic, 460-acre Meadowbrook Farm, located between North Bend and Snoqualmie, was purchased using funding from Conservation Futures, the state Interagency Committee for Outdoor Recreation, King County, the City of North Bend, the City of Snoqualmie, and private donations.
In 2001, the county entered into a land deal with the City of Snoqualmie, the Cascade Land Conservancy, the Weyerhaeuser Real Estate Company, and Puget Western (Puget Sound Energy's land development arm), to protect 3,500 acres of land near Snoqualmie Falls. The county purchased conservation easements on this land using a bond issue that was partially funded by the Conservation Futures levy. The deal allowed Weyerhaeuser to expand a nearby subdivision, but protected a tract of privately owned land at Snoqualmie Falls and land around the Raging River headwaters. An article in The Seattle Times reported the enthusiasm of open space advocates and public officials, including Snoqualmie mayor Randy Fletcher, who said, "We've saved the falls" (Pryne, "Snoqualmie").
The next year, the county purchased shoreline parcels on Vashon and Maury islands, in the Hylebos watershed, on the Duwamish Waterway, along Hamm Creek, near Richmond Beach, and the last undeveloped wooded bank along Salmon Bay in Seattle. The county used Conservation Futures funds and partnered with the federal government and local non-profit organizations to purchase the lands. In contrast to an earlier emphasis on lakes and streams, these purchases protected nearshore habitats, most of which had been damaged or built over in Puget Sound.
A series of land deals between 2001 and 2009 protected land in eastern King County's forests. Conservation Futures funds helped purchase part of the historic Tollgate Farm near North Bend in 2001, protecting wetlands and forests from development. Potential development density was significantly reduced in 2003 on 210 acres outside Fall City when Conservation Futures funds were used to purchase development rights, easing nearby residents' concern about a proposed, higher-density project's impact on local streams and the community. And in 2004, King County purchased the development rights to 90,000 acres of the Snoqualmie Tree Farm using $22 million of Conservation Futures funding. The purchase protected the last large parcel of the Mountains to Sound Greenway and the land is expected to provide a buffer between developed areas and the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area. In 2009, Conservation Futures funding was used to buy conservation easements on more than 4,000 acres around the Raging River headwaters. In addition to protecting water quality, the forest serves as a link between the Cedar River Watershed, the Tiger Mountain State Forest, the Taylor Mountain County Forest, and the Rattlesnake Mountain Scenic Area.
In 2010, $19.1 million in Conservation Futures bond funding allowed King County to acquire 250 acres of shoreline property at the Maury Island Gravel Mine site. In conjunction with the state Department of Ecology, the Cascade Land Conservancy, and People for Puget Sound, the county helped resolve a long-standing dispute over the future of a gravel mine site and the planned new park will provide shoreline access while preserving nearshore habitat. King County’s commitment of Conservation Futures funds proved key to the deal's success, as it led to the state's contribution of $14.5 million toward the purchase price.
Elements of Success
Throughout the three decades the Conservation Futures program has been in place, two elements have contributed significantly to its success: the role of the citizen oversight committee in developing recommendations for funding and the voluntary nature of the program. The committee, made up of volunteers, reviews applications submitted by county and city agencies and creates a list of recommendations to the county executive, who then submits that list to the council for approval. Though the executive and the council can make changes to the list, neither has done so without consulting the citizen advisory committee, thus buffering the process from excessive political influences. The program's voluntary nature, while perhaps limiting organized acquisition of specific lands, allows the county to maintain support for the program and focus public attention on the benefits gained from conservation of open space.
Out of concern that open space designation did not adequately protect publicly owned open space lands in King County further out into the future, the Charter Review Commission recommended in 2009 that the Council create a county charter amendment requiring a public hearing and a super majority vote by the council before removing any properties listed on an inventory of high conservation value properties. The commission developed an inventory of 94 properties, to which the council added one recently acquired property at the Raging River headwaters. Voters approved the Open Space Preservation Amendment in November 2009.
Though hundreds of thousands of acres in King County have been protected by federal, state, county, and local programs, a large majority of that land is in the Cascade Mountains and foothills. In areas open to development, mostly in the lowlands, significant open space land in need of protection remains. County officials intend that open space programs will continue to protect salmon habitat identified by the Water Resource Inventory Area Forums; fund additional purchases of agricultural land and easements, possibly focusing on organic farmland; support working forests through development rights purchases, particularly in the southeast corner of the county; develop regional trails; purchase open space lands that will both buffer and connect existing protected areas; allow for acquisition or protection of large tracts of land that can help protect threatened wildlife populations or rare plants, though finding sufficiently large tracts of land remains a challenge; and fund acquisition of "grey" lands that need rehabilitation, but could provide wildlife habitat in urban areas. The Conservation Futures program is seen as a key element in acquiring these lands and ensuring that open space for people, plants, and wildlife is preserved.