It’s Time to Protect Pierce County Farmland

Community Development Committee Votes on April 3rd to designate Agricultural Resource Land

On Monday, the Comprehensive Plan amendment proposals will be back in front of the Community Development Committee for a recommendation to the full Council. Most of the amendments are uncontroversial, but the amendment on Agricultural Resource Lands (ARL) has generated a lot of interest and debate.

The Issue

Washington’s Growth Management Act requires the identification and protection of timber, mineral, and agricultural resource lands.

State law describes ARL as:

“…land primarily devoted to the commercial production of horticultural, viticultural, floricultural, dairy, apiary, vegetable, or: animal products or of berries, grain, hay, straw, turf, seed, Christmas trees not subject to the excise tax imposed by *RCW 84.33.100 through 84.33.140, finfish in upland hatcheries, or livestock, and that has long-term commercial significance for agricultural production.”

Unlike other zoning decisions, we’re instructed to “approach the effort as a county-wide or area-wide process. Counties and cities should not review resource lands designations solely on a parcel-by-parcel process.”

In response, the Council many years ago came up with a criteria based on the land’s production yield for legumes. It’s an odd choice because legumes are more of an Eastern Washington crop than what would be identified with Pierce County farms. It’s also irrelevant to many of the farm activities described above.

Nevertheless, it produced a map that designated 23,000 acres of land in Pierce County, a little less than half of the 50,000 acres currently being farmed, but that must have seemed like enough at the time.

(1) Active Farms (2) Receiving Agricultural Property Tax Break (3) Current ARL Map

Unfortunately, that map was also based on a GIS error.

When I arrived in 2015 I was surprised to find that our state mandated Comprehensive Plan update was badly behind schedule, and that we need to correct the ARL criteria because it actually only protected about 12,000 acres.

After laboring over the issue over the next few months, it was clear the Council could not come to consensus without some outside expert help and decided to delay action until the following Comp Plan amendment cycle. That’s where we’re at now.

What’s Required

The WAC says that the designated properties should have “long-term commercial significance for agriculture.” Here’s how that’s defined:

  • The classification of prime and unique farmland soils as mapped by the Natural Resources Conservation Service;
  • The availability of public facilities, including roads used in transporting agricultural products;
  • Tax status, including whether lands are enrolled under the current use tax assessment under chapter 84.34 RCW and whether the optional public benefit rating system is used locally, and whether there is the ability to purchase or transfer land development rights;
  • The availability of public services;
  • Relationship or proximity to urban growth areas;
  • Predominant parcel size;
  • Land use settlement patterns and their compatibility with agricultural practices;
  • Intensity of nearby land uses;
  • History of land development permits issued nearby;
  • Land values under alternative uses; and
  • Proximity to markets.

It’s also important to note that a critical mass of farmland is essential. In addition to the farms themselves, there’s all the secondary industries that are necessary to their success. Farm supply, refrigeration, slaughterhouses, and other businesses make production possible. Once there’s not enough farms to sustain those businesses, farming in that area is no longer viable.

Fresh Look Study

To figure out which lands fit the above criteria, the Council hired a team of consultants with expertise in soil science, land use, and agricultural economics. They performed an analysis of our current code, talked to stakeholders, reviewed hearings board decisions, looked at other counties, and made recommended changes in the Fresh Look report.

The main recommended changes are:

Change the minimum parcel size to vary by district. “Pierce County’s 5-acre minimum parcel size is the smallest in the state and too small to ensure commercial viability of individual farm operations. The minimum site size is recommended to be raised to 10 acres for the Puyallup, Bonney/Buckley and Peninsula districts. For the Central/South County district, a much larger 40-acre minimum is more appropriate.”

Vary prime soils requirement by district. Alter criterion to say 50%+ prime soils — or — a minimum of 20 acres of prime soils. With the prevalence of high quality soils in the Puyallup/Orting district, the recommended criterion in that district would require only 25% or 10 acres of prime soils.”

The recommendations result in fewer properties that qualify as ARL, though they will tend to be larger properties. Each district would have slightly less ARL land with the exception of the peninsulas/islands which will add about 200 acres.

Here’s Council Research Staffer Mike Kruger introducing the first three amendments.

The Amendments

Amendment #1 — Young

While I respect and appreciate the Planning Commission’s work, my amendment is an attempted compromise based on feedback we received in committee. It would basically go back to the Planning and Public Works staff recommendation which is the Fresh Look proposal with a few adjustments to remove public lands (parks, schools, etc) and forest lands. This amendment would result in 22,392 acres of ARL.

Amendment #2 — McCune

This amendment would simply change the zoning map to match the current ARL criteria. It would result in 11,623 acres of ARL. It’s likely this amendment would face a legal challenge for failing to comply with state law.

Amendment #3 — McCune

The second of Councilmember McCune’s would basically follow my amendment, but add back in the legume yield criteria and bump back up the percentage of prime farmland requirement in the Puyallup/Orting Valley.

Amendment #5 — McCune

The latest amendment, which seems to have support from the Council majority, would keep the status quo in every way. This amendment would result in 22,392 acres of ARL.

Time to Speak Up

Amendment #5 is problematic for a number of reasons. It also seems to have the most momentum.

First and foremost is that we have acknowledged publicly that the criteria we use is seriously flawed and that the map that is currently adopted does not match it. This means many properties will be improperly designated.

The current map and criteria catch a number of smaller properties which are not commercially viable, but misses larger properties where farming is more economically feasible.

We spent $225,000 on the Fresh Look study. Everyone, regardless of their view on ARL, seems to acknowledge that it’s good analysis worthy of our consideration. Shelving it would seem like a tremendous waste of everyone’s time and taxpayer dollars.

Most importantly, it wouldn’t adequately protect Pierce County’s farmland. That’s been something of a trend for decades and we’ve lost thousands of acres of the most important, productive lands in the process. If we don’t want this trend to continue, it’s time for the Council to act.

You can testify at Monday’s hearing, 1:30 in Council Chambers. Or you can always write or call the Council.