Land deal preserves forest, historic buildings

By Elisabeth Murray
Whidbey Examiner

 

Some 60 acres of land at Camp Casey near Coupeville will soon be protected from development – and open to the public – thanks to a $1.9 million state appropriation.

The land will be purchased from Seattle Pacific University, which plans to use the money to repair and restore historical buildings at the old military fort and pursue a long-planned upgrade and expansion of campus facilities.

SPU Vice President Don Mortenson said the deal is a turning point for the campus, which needs the money for repairs of its historic campus. SPU also has future plans to expand in order to accommodate more adult guests at larger conferences.

The campus, which hosts conferences, retreats and educational and sports camps, currently offers mostly dorm-style housing that is more suitable for youths than adults.

“This sale of land will not only preserve this unique property for future generations, but also allow Seattle Pacific University to begin improvements at its Camp Casey historic facility which will create jobs and an economic benefit to the region,” he said.

The Whidbey Camano Land Trust will own the land and the Washington Department of Natural Resources will hold a restrictive conservation easement on it, Land Trust Executive Director Pat Powell said.

Powell said she is pleased with the deal for many reasons – one of which is that it will preserve native prairie.

“This project will save some of the last native prairie on Whidbey Island,” Powell said. “Less than 1 percent or 80 acres remains.”

The Land Trust had purchased 33 acres from Seattle Pacific University seven years ago in a similar arrangement, Powell said.

“The partnership worked really well before,” Powell said. “We want to continue that partnership.”

Powell said that she is hopeful that the purchase will be completed by the end of the year, but the final terms and price are still being negotiated, and an appraisal completed.

“About $1.4 million will start to be spent on renewal and repairs of the current historic structures at Camp Casey as soon as the University knows the sale will be closed,” Mortenson said.

The university’s future plans for expansion at Camp Casey include an 8,000 square foot to 14,000 square foot education center, six retreat/seminar buildings and up to 40 cabins to accommodate adult and family groups.

The Camp Casey Master Plan covers 82 acres, and about three acres of forest would be cleared for new structures. No large, old growth trees would be removed and the heritage forest would not be affected, Mortenson said.

The new development would occur on the row of current officers’ houses as well as north of that row of structures.

The existing camp group would be used for new development. New “walk-in” campsites also could be developed, Mortenson said.

Construction is still several years away, Mortenson said, but he is hopeful that the new buildings that are part of the expansion plan will begin to be ready in three to five years after the sale of the land is completed.

Prior to the economic recession Camp Casey would typically expect approximately 40,000 camper days annually, according to Mortenson. A camper day is one person occupying one bed for one night. Once the entire master plan is completed over the course of 10 to 15 years, an additional 312 new beds will be available – bringing the total to 982 beds at the conference center.

Trails in the area that currently are reserved for use only by guests of Camp Casey would be open to the public once the property is acquired, Powell said.

Preserving the land is of statewide importance in large part because it is home to golden paintbrush, an endangered native prairie plant that is disappearing as a result of habitat loss due to development, Powell said.

Once common to Washington’s prairies, golden paintbrush is now found at only 12 sites around the state – and Camp Casey is one of them.

“This land has fantastic conservation benefits,” Powell said.

The property also includes 44 acres of old-growth forest habitat. Only a handful of low-elevation coastal forests remain in Washington, she said.

The property also is important because of the half-mile of bluff along Admiralty Inlet. These so-called “feeder bluffs” provide sediment to down-current beaches as the result of wave action on the bluff. Replenishing the beaches benefits endangered salmon and other species, Powell said.

The Land Trust already had secured more than $2 million in federal funding through a grant aimed at protecting endangered species, but that money was conditional on matching funds being found before June 2013. That goal has now been achieved, Powell said.

Funding to help buy the Camp Casey property is included in the recently approved state capital budget. The regular legislative session had adjourned without agreement on a budget, but lawmakers returned to Olympia to hammer out the final details.

Money for capital funds projects comes from bonds, and pays for physical improvements to buildings, facilities and public lands.

Powell said she is grateful to Dist. 10 lawmakers for their efforts in securing the money to preserve the property.

“The Land Trust is so incredibly grateful to our legislative champions, Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen and Rep. Norma Smith, for their vision and commitment to the natural heritage and economic vitality of Whidbey Island,” Powell said. “They have taken a stand to protect an irreplaceable treasure while at the same time creating needed jobs on the Island.”

Additional funds to purchase the property also come from a grant of about $80,000 from the Washington Recreation and Conservation Office. Private funds will also be raised by the Whidbey Camano Land Trust to complete the purchase, Powell said.

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