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Land Rush


by JOEL SMITH & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & H & lt;/span & olmberg Park starts at Wall Street on Spokane's north side, where the road turns into Waikiki and heads for the Little Spokane River. At street level, it's just a little 7.5-acre park -- a baseball field, a lot of green. Just above it, though, is a broad expanse of brittle, dry grass that runs rolling for a hundred yards before rising dramatically into woods and rocky crags, the high ridge invisible from the street.

Neighborhood folks have been strolling, biking and walking dogs through here forever. We spent half an hour doing the same this week, huffing and puffing up the steep trails, scrabbling up rocks, leaning out from a particular promontory to take in the expansive view of the north side and Mount Spokane with a feeling of having earned it with our sweat.

Then we got to the very top: huge houses, McMansions, people who earned the same view each morning just by opening the blinds. It was anticlimactic.

County commissioners purchased this 56-acre upper part of the park from a generous landowner for $1 in August. The money used to buy the land -- and the money it will take to maintain it -- came from the Conservation Futures tax, a revenue stream used to set aside and preserve natural, undeveloped lands for those without the money to buy the acreage themselves. That is, for the public. "This [program] is a way to keep our region looking and feeling like it does," says Lunell Haught, who has been helping spearhead the campaign to extend funding. "This really is who we are: trees, open spaces."

Since 1971, the state has allowed counties to levy six cents per thousand dollars of assessed property value to fund the program. (That amounts to six bucks on a $100,000 property, or about 50 cents a month.) Spokane County commissioners took the state up on the offer in 1994. Since then, they've tucked away some 4,300 acres throughout the county, including Camp Sekani, Downriver Park's disc golf course, a popular dog park near the state border, the James T. Slavin Conservation Area south of Spokane and 100 acres along the Little Spokane River. The same week that the county purchased the upper half of Holmberg Park, it closed on 385 acres on 3,375-foot Antoine Peak, north of Spokane Valley.

But all of that funding could dry up with a "no" vote on Nov. 6. Of course, "could" is the operative word. Under state law, county commissioners have the right to levy the tax themselves. But since 1997, they've put the issue to voters, each time with an agreement that they'll ask again in five years. In both elections, voters overwhelmingly supported the idea, even at their unhappiest. In 1997, says Craig Volosing, another campaign supporter, "This county turned down every initiative on the ballot [but] passed this with doggone near a supermajority."

This time around, though, there's a catch. A "yes" vote will keep the funding going but without a sunset -- meaning that the tax will continue until whenever the commissioners decide to turn it off. Haught says commissioners don't need public approval to perpetuate the levy for public lands: "The people have spoken." She expects them to say it again in November.

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