Affordable Housing and Land Conservation

Author: Land Trust Team | 04/24/23

Not a Conflict We Need Both!

There is an urgent need for affordable housing in Island County, as in many places across the country.  But is that need in conflict with all the Land Trust’s efforts to conserve undeveloped land and open spaces? Not at all. It’s a myth that these two crucial land uses are at odds with each other.

Smart affordable housing and smart land conservation are both necessary to create healthy, resilient and sustainable island communities. Here are some facts:

First, most of Island County outside the three incorporated towns is regulated for low-density single-family housing with just one residence on 5-, 10- or 20-acre lots. Developing such lots involves the cost of expensive acreage and the required installation of a septic system, well and other utilities — before the cost of building the house. Meaningful affordable housing solutions require higher density and simply don’t pencil out in rural areas.

Location is the key to providing smart affordable housing at scale, and that depends on access to public water, paved roads, transit and, most importantly, sewers. Proximity to jobs, schools and businesses is also critical. These requirements narrow the options for affordable housing to the county’s few urban growth areas. Island County has very few areas designated for denser housing — the incorporated towns of Oak Harbor, Coupeville and Langley and a few rural areas of intense development, or RAIDS. Even in these areas development needs to allow smaller lots, lot splitting and infill to encourage construction of affordable housing, as well as options like duplexes, triplexes and apartments. And because affordable housing is often not very profitable for developers, more financial incentives are necessary, including government grants, reduced regulatory barriers, and density incentives.

In comes smart land conservation. The Land Trust has a long-standing strategic land conservation plan that prioritizes protecting connected natural areas and family farms to bolster climate resilience and ensure clean air and water, safe local food, refuge for fish and wildlife, and places for people to connect with nature. Land conservation helps ensure that the islands remain a healthy place for living things to survive and thrive. Furthermore, there is widespread consensus, backed by a huge body of evidence, that smart conservation improves local economies.

That brings us to some recent criticism of two Land Trust conservation efforts outside the town limits of Langley and Oak Harbor. The reality is that neither of these properties would ever be developed for affordable housing. Left to market forces without Land Trust easements, the mature forest outside Langley and the working farmland south of Oak Harbor would very likely become developed for much more expensive single-family residences on large acreages, just like most lands in the county.

Conservation and affordable housing are not in conflict. The Land Trust will always advocate for smart, sustainable development that includes affordable housing. And we’re always willing to collaborate with affordable-housing organizations where real partnership opportunities exist. Please join us in supporting both of these critical efforts.


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