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County Council votes Tuesday on Land Bank purchases; prosecutor says Pratt cannot vote on 150 Nichols St. project
Two former chairpersons of the San Juan County Land Bank Commission are urging the County Council in writing to approve the Land Bank's acquisition of 150 Nichols St., proposed as the site of a year-round farmers market and events center
One former chairman said that if the council votes Tuesday to not accept the deed for historic preservation and open space easements — a purchase it has twice approved — the council "could cause permanent damage to the ability of the Land Bank to keep the faith of the citizens of San Juan County, making their mission of land preservation much more difficult."
The County Council is scheduled to decide after a public hearing Tuesday at 1 p.m. whether to accept the deed on a $400,000 purchase of historic preservation and open space easements at 150 Nichols St. The San Juan Islands Agricultural Guild is purchasing the site for $775,000, using the easement proceeds and money it received from a state grant. As proposed, the Ag Guild would own and manage the site, the Land Bank would own the easements. According to the easements, the Ag Guild would be required to restore the old industrial building on Nichols Street and keep the grounds open for public use.
The easements at 150 Nichols St. are part of a package of easements being voted on Tuesday. Earlier in the day, at 10:45 a.m., the council will have a public hearing on a resolution to lease the Frazer Homestead on San Juan Island for agricultural use.
According to an opinion by Prosecuting Attorney Randall K. Gaylord, posted on the county's website, County Councilwoman Lovel Pratt must abstain from voting on the acquisition because she is the Ag Guild's former paid director and is now a volunteer, and as such has a "remote interest" in the project.
The investment has earned the County Council's approval twice in the past two years. Opposition has grown, however, since the Town of Friday Harbor pulled out as a potential partner late last year. To replace the town's funding, the Ag Guild received the state grant with the assistance of state Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-San Juan Island.
At the San Juan County Fair, Ranker told farmers that the funding is earmarked specifically for purchase of 150 Nichols St., and cannot be used to improve the San Juan County Fairgrounds for a year-round farmers market, as proposed by supporters of moving the farmers market to that location.
Those supporters have called the purchase of 150 Nichols St. a misuse of public funds and question the financial viability of the project. A petition was circulated by Friday Harbor businesswoman Lynn Danaher, calling for the guild's state grant to be used to locate the farmers market at the county fairgrounds instead. She and others say a year-round farmers market could provide a financial boost to the beleaguered fairgrounds.
Supporters of the 150 Nichols St. site say the project will preserve a unique historical site and revitalize the downtown core.
The building and one-third acre at 150 Nichols St. was historically the site of Friday Harbor Brick and Tile Co., which manufactured blocks used to build many of downtown's oldest buildings, among them Friday Harbor Town Hall.
Dan Selak, a Land Bank commissioner from 1994-2001, now living in Austin, Texas, wrote the County Council that it "should not be choosing acquisitions or redirecting funds which (are) at the sole discretion of the Land Bank commissioners. Either accept or reject the Land Bank work; the County Commissioners are not Land Bank Commissioners and are not authorized to do project selection."
Selak said the Legislature and voters of San Juan County, in creating the Land Bank, intended to "remove politics from decisions" made by Land Bank commissioners.
"Approval of budgets, acquisitions and easements were to be either accepted or rejected by the County Commissioners, but never cherry picked and/or funds redirected, regardless of petitions or political pressure by special interests groups. A cursory reading of the statute which established this fine program of land preservation makes that abundantly clear.
"It would be a travesty of justice for County Commissioners to so radically change the direction of the Land Bank by altering the hard work done by their board and staff and the decisions they make. That action would cause irreparable damage resulting in the loss of faith by those who might consider doing business with the San Juan County Land Bank in future years and mitigate their mission of land and open space preservation."
Former Land Bank chairwoman Nancy H. Jones served on the town's Historic Preservation Review Board when the board placed 150 Nichols St. on the list of structures to be preserved.
"(We) know that this building is significant to the heritage of the Town and the County ... I feel certain that without this easement the building will eventually be destroyed and part of the character of the Town will vanish."
Jones added, "I know that a large part of the (Real Estate Excise Tax) generated on San Juan Island comes from the Town’s real estate transactions and yet there are few opportunities for any of this money to be directly channeled back into the Town. Of course, Town residents enjoy the open space purchases throughout the County, but doing a project for both historic preservation and open space purposes within the Town is a unique opportunity."