County purchases Lopez Hill from state

San Juan County Land Bank permanently added 400 acres of forested on Lopez to its protected properties on May 1. Lopez Hill, previously owned by the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, was leased by the county since 2009.

“This is a great opportunity for San Juan County through its land bank to permanently protect the land from development and manage it for its natural and recreational values,” said San Juan County Councilman Jamie Stephens. “Unfragmented blocks of land of this size are increasingly uncommon and precious in the San Juan Islands.”

The 400-acre parcel includes mature second-growth forest, freshwater wetlands, rocky meadows and the highest peak on the island. The state and county’s leasing arrangement followed an announcement by the state that it intended to sell the property, allowing development to occur on it. A group of locals opposed to the proposal united, forming Friends of Lopez Hill, which, according to the land bank, was “instrumental” in keeping the property public. Friends of Lopez Hill created and maintain the almost 4 miles of pedestrian, equestrian and mountain biking trails that meander through the property.

“This is a win-win for San Juan County and Washington State,” said Washingotn state Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz, who is chairwoman for the Board of Natural Resources in addition to leading DNR. “San Juan County gains ownership of a popular recreation spot while the state gets funds to buy property elsewhere that will generate more long-term revenue for public school construction.”

The county had a 50-year lease of the DNR-owned property using a $5 million legislative appropriation to the state’s Trust Land Transfer Program. There is a remaining $1 million on the lease the county will need to pay to gain permanent ownership. DNR announced via press release that it will use the $1 million payment to buy replacement properties in the state for the Common School Trust, which funds K-12 public school construction statewide.

According to the press release, Lopez Hill includes unique environmental, wetland and habitat features that make it more difficult for DNR to harvest timber — the primary source of funding for the Common School Trust.

“These type of transactions with the schools’ trust fund are unusual,” Stephens said. “We are thrilled the State and Lands Commissioner Franz was willing to work with us to make it happen.”

This is the second DNR land on Lopez that San Juan County has purchased in the last six months. It bought the 103-acre South Odlin property from DNR in December.