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Life on The Rocks: REETS; the only path forward | The Journal of the San Juan Islands


By Steve Ulvi, Journal contributor

This fall San Juan Island voters will again exercise an outsized influence on county elections and the advanced renewal of the Conservation Land Bank. Our conflicted island community, more populated with greater turnover and less cohesion than our sister islands, is being battered by the winds of change as we cling to an unsustainable mix of summer visitor invasion, luxury home construction, retiree pensions and government jobs.

Many cost-of-living issues are fanning the flames of disagreement creating confusion about the consequences of these ballot decisions. As with our nation, there is a whiff of reactionary deconstruction – without suggested alternatives – tainting the air. The two-year county budget is up to $280 million now. Property taxes are surging, county wages increased by 20%, and business competition decreasing. Meanwhile, we hear of grandiose plans for a new hive of county offices once the wings of the historic courthouse are trucked to a landfill. We all quietly spent $15 million for county offices at the Beaverton Valley Complex. Window dressing, not socio-economic progress.

Like you, I expect nothing less than transparency, accountability and reasonably efficient local government collecting taxes and levies. But what intentional outcome are we buying into?

We have a clear choice; continue the same old course or go all in for population growth with affordable housing, sustainable business incentives (spawning many more year around jobs), increased agricultural food production, nearby places to recreate, thriving and diverse cottage industries and some tourism in a socio-economic makeover. Just as was broadly explored and analyzed in our excellent, if overbaked, Comprehensive Plan that few read.

These real estate excise taxes (REETs) are irreplaceable fund sources for nurturing socio-economic well-being and change given our extreme community challenges. They are a small investment by property buyers in a wonderful, but devolving community. We are the only beneficiary of these local excise taxes because we initiated legislation, put them before voters and continue to suffer erosive affordability, a paucity of affordable housing, the lowest average wages and least percentage of public lands in the entire state.

I find hope in the phenomenal success of both REETs; land conservation (1990) and permanently affordable housing (2018). The enabling legislation requires full funding in land conservation (1%) to allow for the affordable housing tax to exist (.5%). A destabilizing problem – being whipsawed by real estate bubbles – becomes a significant part of a solution. REET revenues have exceeded all expectations and our “skin in the game” community status gives us great leverage in acquiring grant revenues and partners leading to a 1 to 1 dollar ratio for land conservancy and a spectacular 3 to 1 ratio for desperately needed affordable housing. Both funds have administrative costs well below 10%.

If we recklessly vote down the Land Bank idea (they are now expending 50% of revenue on stewardship and have a very public Strategic Plan) then the program sunsets on the last day of 2026. At that sad moment, either the affordable housing tax also sunsets, or more likely expires at the end of 2030.