County told to redo plan to save farms

AARON CORVIN; The News Tribune


Pierce County, WA - Pierce County officials failed to justify a plan to preserve 5,077 acres of farmland and to involve the public in the creation of that plan, a state land-use panel says.

The Aug. 2 decision by the Central Puget Sound Growth Management Hearings Board nullified an ordinance the County Council approved in November 2003. The ordinance shielded farmland in the unincorporated area east of Tacoma and in the Alderton-McMillin area from urban growth.

But the county's notices "never informed the public of the direction" that the policies were heading, according to the hearings board's decision.

Although county officials correctly used the richness of soils as the basis of its new farmland policy, the hearings board said, they didn't analyze two other important issues under Washington's Growth Management Act: the land's proximity to population areas and the possibility of more intense use of the land.

As a result, Pierce County must do a better job of involving the public and examine other factors in protecting farms to make its comprehensive land-use plan comply with the state's growth law, the board concluded.

The hearings board's decision responded to a Jan. 16 appeal of the county's ordinance by Orton Farms LLC, Riverside Estates Joint Venture and Knutson Farms.

Steve Burnham, an attorney for Investco Financial Corp., which manages Orton Farms LLC, a development company, welcomed the decision.

"It puts everything back to status quo and allows us to continue the farming operations that are going on out there," he said Tuesday, adding that it also means the company can make long-range plans for the property "without it being totally restricted to one use."

In its decision, the hearings board also emphasized that local governments have a responsibility to preserve farmland under Washington's 14-year-old growth law.

"It is undisputed that the (Growth Management Act) imposes a duty upon Pierce County to identify, designate and protect agricultural resource lands of long-term commercial significance," the board said.

County officials on Tuesday took solace in those remarks.

County Councilman Calvin Goings (D-Puyallup), chairman of the council's Community Development Committee, said the county is already using the criteria it should have used initially to pursue a new farmland preservation policy.

"What the (hearings) board did was help our case by foreshadowing to us the checklist of items we should have showed in our work last year," Goings said.

Pierce County's pursuit of a new farmland policy is happening as part of the county's mandated 10-year review of its comprehensive land-use plan. Decisions are expected this fall. The council is expected to begin its first hearing Sept. 20.

The county should have done a better job of boosting public involvement last year, Goings said, but that problem is being addressed in this latest process through Planning Commission and council hearings.

The policy thrown out by the hearings board created a "rural farm" zone prohibiting intensive residential and commercial development on farmland in unincorporated areas. The "rural farm" designation applied to farmland that was 2.5 acres or more in areas where 50 percent or more of the land contained prime agricultural soils.

The new draft policy the county is considering is aimed at preserving 34,047 acres of farmland in the Puyallup Valley, including the unincorporated area of Alderton-McMillin and properties outside the cities of Puyallup, Fife, Sumner and Orting.

It would create two land-use zones - "Valley Farm" and "Rural Farm" - to shield farmland from urban growth. Additionally, the draft policy seeks to boost the farming industry: It would allow farmers to build farm-related retail businesses on their land.

Pierce County has until Jan. 31, 2005, to take action to make its land-use plan comply with the Growth Management Act, according to the hearings board.

The Central Puget Sound Growth Management Hearings Board is one of three such panels appointed by the governor to resolve land-use disputes.

Aaron Corvin: 253-552-7058

To learn more

For information about Pierce County's land-use plan and draft farmland policy, call county research analyst Anna Graham at 253-798-6253 or County Councilman Calvin Goings at 253-798-6694.



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