Land Bank to release strategic plan

On March 26, Director of San Juan County Conservation Land Bank Lincoln Bormann presented the organization’s six-year strategic plan to the County Council. Since 1990 when the Land Bank was formed, the authorization period for the organization to collect a 1% real estate excise tax for the acquisition and maintenance of conservation areas must be re-authorized at least every 12 years, and is passed via a general county vote. As the Land Bank approaches the end of its current authorization period in 2026, there was a desire to outline a clear vision to the public about the organization and where it is headed in the coming years.

The creation of the strategic plan has taken over a year to devise and has incorporated a variety of feedback and collaboration. At the beginning of their planning efforts, the Land Bank determined they needed to hire a consultant to help draft the plan, and chose Triangle Associates as their partner. They began drafting the plan in July, and the Land Bank formed a sub-committee of Land Bank commission and staff members and county staff members to help shape the plan.

A key part of the planning process was gathering input from the community. The Land Bank conducted 66 hour-long interviews, and intentionally chose to interview people with influential presence from a cross-section of areas on the island, such as education, construction, business and more. They also strategically chose people who were not necessarily vocal Land Bank supporters to receive various perspectives. In addition to the interviews, the Land Bank issued their Engage Survey through the county, receiving around 600 voluntary responses from the public.

Through this data collection process, a few key takeaways were made apparent from the interviews and survey responses.

“One of the things we learned very definitely was that people just don’t know a lot of what we’re up to,” said Bormann. “They may be supportive, they may not be supportive, but they have ideas about things that we should be doing, and in some cases, we are doing them already. Or they have clear ideas about how we should be doing things and they don’t know what our processes are.”

The Engage Survey was also used to hone in on certain areas within the Land Bank’s mandate, which is “to preserve in perpetuity areas in the county that have environmental, agricultural, aesthetic, cultural, scientific, historic, scenic or low-intensity recreational value a to protect future and existing sources of potable.” With such a broad scope of areas to focus on, Bormann explained that the principal driver of the survey was to identify which areas the public believes the Land Bank should focus on. The top three areas of importance deemed by the public were environmental protection, protection of farmland, and recreational opportunities.

The strategic plan includes five major goals: enhance communication and understanding of Land Bank operations, increase community engagement, increase conservation efforts to maximize the island’s resiliency and health, cultivate efficient and sustainable operations, and manage lands with intention and consistency. For each goal, the plan includes multiple strategies to implement, and each strategy is broken down into priority actions to be implemented in the first year of the plan being implemented.

One specific challenge that the Land Bank has faced in recent years is the spread of misinformation regarding the Land Bank’s operations and involvement in different projects across the county. Bormann explained the different challenges the county and the Land Bank face when addressing misinformation.

“The county has a tough row to hoe with [addressing misinformation] because it’s so difficult to respond to things in a timely way when you have to consult with so many people; you need to talk to [different people], and staff needs to get on a council agenda. With all those steps it really can be very difficult to respond in a timely way,” said Bormann. “I think that once misinformation is thrown out into the community — and a lot of times we’re talking about social media — it becomes accepted as true if you don’t actually respond to it and answer people’s questions.”

In addition, Bormann described another challenge of being a small community with fewer media platforms to disperse information, so a significant portion of information is spread by word of mouth. However, following the COVID-19 pandemic, Bormann believes there have been fewer community gatherings to disseminate information. One way the Land Bank is actively responding to the spread of misinformation is by maintaining multiple social media platforms that update the public on what they are doing and to try and recruit volunteers. They also record all their meetings and publish them on YouTube and address comments and questions in real-time during meetings as they are sent through the chat.

“The most important thing is that people have accurate information. There are lots and lots of theories and rumors, and we want people to know the truth,” said Bormann.

As for public opinion on the Land Bank, a group of citizens is working with the Trust for Public Land to poll where the public stands on the question of reauthorization – this should be completed in the next few weeks. TPL is a national non-profit organization that assists communities in receiving local, state and national funding for conservation efforts, and has agreed to help Land Bank supporters in their campaign for reauthorization. Bormann believes the national organization has taken special interest in the Land Bank due to the symbolic importance of San Juan being the only county that has passed a conservation real estate excise tax in the state.

Whether the Land Bank receives reauthorization to collect the real estate excise tax will greatly impact how it will continue their operations. Although the Land Bank Commission has been setting aside funds in the event of no reauthorization, the real estate tax is the Land Bank’s primary source of revenue, and there would be severe cuts and dramatic changes to the organization, such as discontinuing the acquisition of land, if they are not reauthorized.

If they are reauthorized, Bormann said the Land Bank will continue building on its current functions: ecological preservation through different methods such as forest thinning to reduce catastrophic fire risk, and the protection and acquisition of farmland to ensure the land is accessible to farmers. Bormann wanted to assure those who prefer the Land Bank to focus on the properties they already have rather than acquiring more that stewardship of their current property is a large part of what they do, and will only continue to absorb a larger part of their annual budget.

Bormann hopes in the coming years, the Land Bank will see more volunteers and community members getting out on these different properties to experience for themselves what the Land Bank is doing.

“Active engagement — getting people out onto properties, volunteering, hosting open houses or informational walks, whatever we can do to get people out onto the preserves – is very effective, because it makes what we do tangible,” said Bormann. “We want to talk about land management and how we’re trying to do that, but to explain that to somebody in a meeting or article can be challenging. You know, if you can’t see it, then you have no understanding of what we’re talking about. To see it yourself is the best thing.”

Even though the Land Bank has only 4.5% of the island’s land mass under its ownership and therefore their stewardship efforts might not be viewed as significant, their hope is to influence other agencies and private individuals on the island to help preserve and protect the island’s environment.

The Land Bank’s strategic plan will be made available to the public around mid-April following final edits made from outstanding comments from council members.