Land Bank seeks acquisition of 300 acre Zylstra Lake property

Swimming, hiking and boating may be in the future for the 50 acre Zylstra Lake off San Juan Valley Road. The lake has found a buyer in a joint venture of the San Juan County Land Bank and San Juan Preservation Trust, which has proposed to buy the property that includes 312 acres of farmland for a purchasing price of $3 million dollars.

In a Nov. 30 San Juan County Council meeting, council members gave the Land Bank the go ahead with their acquisition plan, though many questions still remain about a management plan and financial resources.

Lincoln Bormann, director of the Land Bank, presented the acquisition proposal for the San Juan County Council Nov. 23, a topic that he said has been “a matter of some excitement and conjecture.”

In order to close the deal before 2015 ends, the Land Bank plans to pay $250,000 by Dec. 15, with an additional $50,000 contributed by the San Juan Preservation Trust. According to Bormann, the Land Bank and SJPT would contribute a total of $500,000 each, and sell off 30 acres of agricultural land for $800,000. Bormann said that there are multiple buyers currently interested.

The rest of the money is planned to be raised through conservation grants from the Department of Ecology, Washington Wildlife and Recreation program and the Salmon Recovery Funding Board amongst others, as well as private donations.

Staff from Windermere Real State of San Juan Island confirmed that there are developers interested in buying and developing the property if it is not sold to the Land Bank, which is zoned for around 50 homes. SJPT currently has it in escrow.

The Town of Friday Harbor is not a partner in the Land Bank acquisition, but may pay for water rights associated with the lake, which could then be used to pay for the acquisition.

“The town’s position is the acquisition as open space is a great idea,” Town Administrator Duncan Wilson said.

According to Wilson, the water rights are of interest in order to take eliminate some water restrictions that are on the lake via Augmentation No. 2, a pump station on Wold Road that connects to both Trout Lake and Zylstra Lake. Water is pumped up to Trout Lake to refill it during the wet season, between Nov. 1 and April 30.

An incorrect number was produced by a Land Bank expenditure and acquisition plan draft stating that the town would commit $1 million to the water rights. Lincoln Bormann said that was just the draft of the proposal, and the amount was being used as a placeholder.

“Because we wanted to show the council how the situation looked at the time and how we hoped it would stand when it was time for final approval, potential partners were listed along with hoped for contributions,” Bormann explained. “The best information we had at that point indicated a strong interest from the town and we had to assign an amount that would be significant for the project to succeed.”

Duncan Wilson reiterated that amount was never agreed upon.

“That original staff report that was pulled because it’s completely and totally inaccurate,” Wilson said. “The town has not reached an agreement, and we don’t know where that came from. We would not have anywhere near 1 million dollars towards that project.”

The town has hired a water rights attorney to appraise the value of the water rights. Wilson said that there’s still “a lot of discussion that needs to happen” about the project, and that he has concerns about whether they’re acquiring the property for primarily recreational purposes or conservation purposes.

Councilman Rick Hughes had similar concerns, voiced in the Nov. 23 meeting.

“I want to make sure that the main reason why we’re doing this is to preserve this parcel the way it is, and we’re not trying to drive this to be a new park,” Hughes said, comparing the situation to Turtleback Mountain on Orcas in reference to maintaining the integrity of the existing property, instead of the approach that San Juan Preservation Trust and the Land Bank has taken with Mount Grant. Bormann agreed that was the main goal. The current proposal includes hiking trails, non-motorized boats and swimming as recreational uses, while also planning to get conservation grants for the water fowl and possible salmon restoration.

“I want to reiterate the question that the primary goal of this is preservation and conservation of this area, with an insularly benefit of the potential summer recreation,” Hughes said. “This is a really big purchase that has happened very quickly.”

No notices have been sent to adjacent property owners as of Nov. 30, and Hughes suggested a management plan be sent to notify neighbors. In the Nov. 30 meeting, council members noted the importance of public access to the management plan going forward. Jarman stated that there were four meetings that the Land Bank could have discussed the acquisition with the council, instead of rushing the process.

“I’m not sure if I’m speaking for myself or the board, but I’m extremely disappointed that this didn’t come before the council in any executive session before this venture even got started,” Council chairman Bob Jarman said to Bormann at the meeting. “To hear about it in the street was pretty embarrassing that this acquisition was taking place. There needs to be better communication between the Land Bank and this council.”

Bormann and chairman Jim Skoog apologized, saying there were many “moving parts” to the process and promised more open dialogue in the future.

The council also had concerns about the possibility of projected financing falling through, since grants have not yet been received, nor a buyer confirmed for the 30 acre resell that could generate $800,000. The council members posed a number of worst case scenarios, which Bormann replied that even without any additional funding, possession of the lower lake would be secured by Land Bank and SJPT funds.

“We’ve tried to construct this to minimize our risk as much as possible,” Bormann said.

Bormann said that after the Dec. 15 payment of $300,000 needed to close the deal for 2015, the payments will come in installments of $900,000 in 2017 and 2018.

By Anna V. Smith

Journal reporter