skip navigation

Request for information on funding sources for the acquisition of parks and open space

This is in response to a request for information on funding sources for the acquisition of parks and open space. This includes information on non-monetary options to acquire and protect open space. The following is a list of the primary options that we've identified:

Funding options for park and open space acquisition

  • Impact fees
  • Real estate excise tax
  • Conservation futures tax
  • General obligation bond
  • Fee-in-lieu of dedication of parks and open space
  • Grants
  • Purchase of development rights program (would still need funding, e.g., bond measure)

Non-monetary options for park and open space acquisition

  • Parks and/or open space dedication requirement as part of subdivision
  • Density bonus or clustering for preservation of open space
  • Density transfer
  • Development agreements (not involving fee-in-lieu of dedication)
  • Transfer of development rights program
  • Less than fee simple - purchase of development rights; conservation easements
  • King County four-to-one program

Other incentives for land preservation in open space

  • Current use tax assessment

More detail on these options is presented below:

Impact Fees

Impact fees are charges assessed against newly-developing property that attempt to recover the cost incurred by a local government in providing the public facilities required to serve the new development. For counties and cities planning under the Growth Management Act, impact fees are specifically authorized under RCW 82.02.090(7) only for: "(1) public streets and roads; (2) publicly owned parks, open space, and recreation facilities; (3) school facilities; and (4) fire protection facilities in jurisdictions that are not part of a fire district." (emphasis added) Typically, if impact fees are imposed, these take the place of a fee-in-lieu program (see below). Impact fees are also authorized under SEPA. The Washington State Environmental Policy Act, Ch. 43.21C RCW, grants broad authority to impose mitigating conditions relating to a project's environmental impacts. Some cities have interpreted SEPA's authority to mitigate environmental impacts to include authority to impose impact fees. A municipality pursuing this course must establish a proper foundation. Local SEPA policies authorizing the exercise of SEPA substantive authority must be adopted and fees imposed must be rationally related to impacts identified in threshold determination documents (primarily environmental checklists) or environmental impact statements. Fees collected under SEPA may not duplicate fees collected under other sources of authority.

Also see the MRSC webpage on Impact Fees.

Real Estate Excise Tax

A real estate excise tax (REET) is levied on all real estate sales measured by the full selling price, including the amount of any liens, mortgages, and other debts given to secure the purchase. (See Ch. 82.46 RCW.) Also see the discussion of the "Real Estate Excise Tax," in A Revenue Guide for Washington Counties, and MRSC's webpage on Real Estate Excise Tax.  The webpage provides inforamtion on how various categories of REET funds may be spent.

Conservation Futures Tax

See RCW 84.34.200 - 84.34.250. This levy money may be used solely for the purpose of acquiring rights and interests (such as easements) in real property. Counties that have adopted this tax levy include Clark, Ferry, Island, Jefferson, King, Kitsap, Pierce, San Juan, Skagit, Snohomish, Spokane, Thurston, and Whatcom.

Open Space Bond

These would be general obligation bonds, either limited tax general obligation - also called councilmanic bonds - which may be issued by a vote of the county commissioners or unlimited general obligation bonds, which must be approved by 60 percent of the voters, with a voter turnout that is at least 40 percent of those voting in the most recent general election. The county would need to hire a bond counsel if the county decides to issue bonds. If the county decided to authorize the one percent real estate excise tax for conservation areas, the county would probably want to issue councilmanic bonds, pledging the tax receipts for debt service. It would also have to pledge to use general fund monies as a backup, in case the real estate excise tax receipts were insufficient.

Fee in Lieu of Parks and Open Space

The fee-in-lieu of parks and open space option must be voluntary and is authorized in RCW 82.02.020.

In Washington, local governments have two basic sources of authority for requiring developers to dedicate land for parks: Ch. 58.17 RCW, the State Subdivision Law, and Ch. 43.21C RCW, the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA). Under the state subdivision law, cities and towns can insure that developers install appropriate improvements, including parks, recreation, and playground improvements, through their power to approve or disapprove proposed subdivisions. When the dedication of land is not practical or feasible, some cities and counties have provided for the collection of fees from developers in lieu of land dedications pursuant to "voluntary agreements" adopted under RCW 82.02.020 or as part of a mitigation condition imposed under SEPA.

Under RCW 82.02.020, a county or city may enter into a voluntary agreement with a subdivision developer to allow a payment in lieu of a dedication of land or to mitigate any direct impacts that have been identified as a consequence of the proposed development or subdivision. The permitting agency must be able to establish that an impact fee collected pursuant to a voluntary agreement is "reasonably necessary as a direct result of the proposed development or plat." Funds collected under voluntary agreements must be held in a reserve account and expended on agreed upon capital improvements. Fees must also be expended within five years or be refunded with interest. Court decisions, such as Vintage Construction Company, Inc. v. City of Bothell, 83 Wn. App. 605 (1996), have required cities to demonstrate that the fee be related to the value of the land that might otherwise be dedicated.

You may also be interested in the Washington Supreme Court decision, Isla Verde v. Camas, 146 Wn.2d (7/11/02). This decision addresses the nexus between an open space requirement for a subdivision and the impacts of a particular development.

Purchase of Development Rights

Many purchase of development rights programs (as well as transfer of development rights programs) have been used to preserve farmlands. Bainbridge Island and San Juan County have developed programs to purchase open space, which may include environmentally critical areas such as wetlands. A funding source, such as a bond issue, would need to be identified for a purchase of development rights program.

Park or Open Space Dedication Requirement

The dedication of land for parks or open space is a typical requirement of subdivisions, as noted above under "Fee in-lieu-of parks." King County requires open space for residential developments of more than four lots, and Sultan requires open space for more than 10 lots.

Density Bonus and Clustering

A density bonus allows the granting of additional dwelling units or floor area beyond the maximum allowed under the zoning in exchange for preserving an amenity at the same or a separate site. Density bonuses are used for many purposes including the preservation of open space and protection of critical areas as well as to promote affordable housing. Density bonuses are built into planned unit development, planned residential development, and cluster subdivision provisions. Cluster provisions in rural areas may focus on conserving resource lands and promoting larger open space areas consistent with rural character.

Density Transfer

Density transfer involves the transfer of all or part of the permitted density on a parcel to another parcel. Density transfer is also used to protect critical areas and preserve sensitive areas in a natural state.

Development Agreements

Developers may also enter into other agreements with cities that do not involve the payment of money in-lieu-of open space. Such SEPA mitigation agreements might include deferral of subdivision improvements and possibly involve future dedication of land. MRSC legal consultants have advised that these voluntary agreements are not subject to the five-year limitation in RCW 82.02.020.

Conservation Easements


A conservation easement is a legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust or government agency that permanently limits uses of the land in order to protect its conservation values, typically preserving the land as open space or resource land. Conservation easements may be acquired through a purchase or transfer of development rights program or donated on a voluntary basis to a land trust or government agency.

Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) Program

TDR involves the removal of the right to develop from land in one area or zoning district and the transfer of that right to land in another area or district, where development is permitted. This is somewhat similar to the density transfer (which is usually limited to a specific adjacent site or development project), although typically TDR involves transferring development rights to other sites (receiving sites), which are sometimes distant from the sending site. TDR programs are commonly used to preserve agricultural lands but may also apply to open space preservation, historic sites, and affordable housing. King County, Spokane County, Bainbridge Island, and Redmond have TDR programs.

King County Four-to-One Program

King County's four-to-one greenway is an innovative program that allows, via a development agreement, the development of one acre of land as urban for every four acres donated as open space. For further information, contact Kim Claussen, King County Department of Development and Environmental Services, 206-296-7167 or E-mail:

Current Use Assessment - Open Space

The Washington Open Space Taxation Act (Ch. 84.34 RCW) allows property owners to have their open space, farm and agricultural, and timber lands valued at their current use rather than at their highest and best use. The current use assessment program helps to preserve private land in open space, farm, and timber use.

Additional Web Resources: