County deal would protect 43,000 acres on White River
King County, continuing a decadelong drive to protect working forests from urban sprawl, has struck a deal to buy development rights on a 43,000-acre tree farm east of Enumclaw.
County Executive Dow Constantine announced the $11.1 million agreement with Hancock Timber Resources Group on Thursday, saying it would — if approved by the Metropolitan King County Council — expand the county’s “green wall against sprawl.”
One of the largest deals of its type, the transaction would allow the county to reach its goal of protecting 200,000 acres of forestland from development, Constantine said.
“We’ve made steady progress, but there was always one missing piece of the puzzle — the White River Forest in South King County,” he said.
He said the forest is the largest block of privately owned land in the county not already protected from development. It would continue to be operated as a working forest, with the public allowed to use the land for recreation.
Hancock’s board approved the deal Thursday. County Councilmembers Larry Phillips and Reagan Dunn, chairman and vice chairman respectively of the council’s Transportation, Economy and Environment Committee, declared their support Thursday.
Dunn said he would urge the council to approve it “as expeditiously as possible.”
The forest lies mostly north of Highway 410 and the White River, stretching from the Enumclaw city limits to east of Greenwater on the route to Crystal Mountain ski resort and Chinook Pass.
Without the county’s purchase of development rights, Hancock or a future landowner could have built 857 homes on 40- and 80-acre lots. The land is zoned for commercial forestry.
“There aren’t going to be subdivisions and shopping malls and sprawl to the Cascade crest,” Phillips said.
The County Council last fall set aside $3 million from the countywide parks levy and the conservation-futures levy toward a possible purchase of development rights on the White River Forest.
Constantine has asked the council to authorize the sale of bonds backed by conservation futures for the $8.1 million needed to close the purchase.
The county has acquired forestland in the form of either land ownership or, more often, purchase of development rights. Those rights can be sold to developers, who use them to increase the density of their projects in urban areas.
King County paid Hancock Timber $22 million in 2004 for development rights on its 89,000-acre Snoqualmie Forest, which stretches from the Snohomish County line almost to Snoqualmie and North Bend.
In a 2008 deal, the county acquired — at no cost to taxpayers — a conservation easement preventing future development of Plum Creek Timber’s 45,500-acre forest at the headwaters of the Green River. Plum Creek agreed to the deal in exchange for the ability to sell development rights.
Cynthia Welti, executive director of the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust, said she was “stunned” to learn of the latest deal, calling it “enormous for the region.”
Purchasing development rights instead of buying land makes sense, Welti said. “The county cannot afford to buy this land, and shouldn’t,” she said. “It’s a perfect use of the transfer of development-rights program.”
Dan Christensen, CEO of Boston-based Hancock Timber, said in a statement the deal brings the company’s protection of “sensitive lands” around the globe to 470,000 acres — of which about 132,000 are in King County.
“We are pleased to move one step closer to our common goal of protecting the impressive White River property as a working forest in perpetuity,” he said.