Luster off the Land Bank?

Prop. 1 Election Results - Contributed photo
Prop. 1 Election Results
— image credit: Contributed photo

Landslide? Not even close.

This time around the Land Bank will emerge from a countywide election with its principal funding source intact for 12 more years, but with a public relations problem on its hands as well.

When all the votes are tallied, Proposition 1, which sought renewal of the 1 percent real estate excise tax that for 20 years has fueled the Land Bank’s ambitions, will have passed by earning roughly 53 percent of total ballots cast in the Nov. 8 election. With about 30 ballots still remaining to be counted, the number of “yes” votes for Prop.1 exceed “no” votes by 4,134 to 3,708, a difference of only 426 votes.

Land Bank Director Lincoln Bormann concedes that’s a margin of victory that’s disturbingly small.

“Obviously, we all were very surprised by the result,” Bormann said. “I don’t think any of us expected an overwhelming ‘yes’ vote, but that’s very tight. I think there’s a clear message there and that now we have to figure out what that message is.”

Despite its pending victory at the polls, Prop. 1’s results reveal a large drop in voter support, if not for the Land Bank itself, then at least for its funding mechanism. In 1990, roughly 70 percent of voters cast a ballot approving the creation of the Land Bank and its principal funding source as well. Nine years later, when the Land Bank sought a 12-year extension of its 1 percent excise tax, about 73 percent of local voters favored that renewal.

San Juan Island’s Ron Whalen believes the message of Prop. 1 is no mystery. And although he expected it would pass, Whalen, chief spokesman of the campaign against Prop.1, maintains the Land Bank has lost touch with community priorities and is out of tune with the current economic climate.

“Everybody’s talking about cutting back in this economy, but not the Land Bank,” he said. “I think there’s a serious question of accountability. I think what came out at the forums and in the campaign was a lot of unspoken discontent about its mission statement, what many people call its ‘wandering’ mission statement.”

Land Bank Commission Chairman Tom Cowan said when the commission meets this Friday on Orcas, for its 1-day annual retreat, that making sense of the Nov. 8 election will top the agenda. He said the commission will be looking to encourage greater attendance at its monthly meetings and the amount of feedback it receives.

“We generally have a poor showing at our commission meetings and we’re just not getting the feedback we’d like,” Cowan said. “We do want to make sure we’re representing the community properly.”

Cowan acknowledged it’s a tough time to ask for voter support on financial measures, even for a renewal. Still, he said the Land Bank also feels the pinch of the real estate downturn and that it’s ability to accomplish time-consuming transactions would be jeopardized even further without the certainty of its primary funding source in place.

“The economy, that was the toughest part of this,” he said of the election.

Bormann said the Land Bank conducted as many as 80 official “outreach” events in 2010 alone, but that it benefit from hearing more from those, “who would never think about going to a Land Bank meeting.”

“The reality is we’re not getting out there,” he said.

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