Farmers cheer land decision - Win reprieve when commissioners' decision prevails over county planners, growth hearings board recommendations
Two dozen Clark County farmers and timber managers likely heaved a sigh of relief Wednesday after winning a reprieve from a rezoning threat that would have devalued their property.
Clark County Commissioners Betty Sue Morris and Craig Pridemore declined to rezone
3,500 acres now slated for housing but used as tree, hay, grain, livestock or fruit farms.
The Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board suggested the land might be more appropriately zoned as "resource land," locking it up for future farm and forest use only.
The board's order was another in a chain of conflicting court and board decisions dating back to 1994.
The landowners fought any rezoning, saying it would rob them of the option to sell small parcels. In some cases, the owners want the option to sell the land to help provide financing for farming and timber operations.
County planners had recommended keeping the residential zoning on 1,708 of the 3,500 acres, but rezoning 1,792 acres for agriculture or forestry. The planning commission largely disagreed, saying only 159 acres should be rezoned for farms.
Pridemore and Morris went even further after hearing 10 speakers for and against rezoning at a public hearing Tuesday night. They refused to approve any rezoning.
Commissioner Judie Stanton was recovering from surgery to remove a bone spur from her neck and didn't participate in the decision.
"I feel really good about this decision because we did the right thing legally, ethically and morally," Morris said.
But Vancouver attorney John Karpinski, representing the Clark County Natural Resources Council, said the commissioners failed to follow the law when they rejected any rezoning of the five- and 10-acre residential parcels to 20- or 40-acre farm or forestland.
"Basically, when it came down to following the law, they blinked," Karpinski said. "They didn't have the stomach for it. They made a political decision as opposed to a legal one."
Not so, said Pridemore.
"I think it's very clear from the record that we did follow the law. In terms of protecting resource land, this would have made virtually no difference, while having a huge negative impact on a very small number of people."
But Karpinski said his group would deliberate on whether to appeal the decision back to the hearings board.
"Clearly this decision is wrong," he said. "We'll see what to do with it. It's just a matter of priorities. We've got a comprehensive plan update going on and a lot of other battles, too."
Farmers were of one mind on the commissioners' decision; they liked it.
"I think it's the only sensible and just decision that sensible and just persons could make," said Alan Schumacher, owner of a 250-acre oat, hay and timber farm at Heisson. "I was afraid they'd postpone it again."
Timber farmer Carol Levanen of Yacolt said commissioners made "huge strides" in holding firm against rezoning. The Washington Legislature needs to overhaul its Growth Management Act with a realistic eye to farms, which are almost never viable at 20 acres, she said.
Even for much larger farms in Western Oregon, buyers are scarce, said Susan Rasmussen, who grew up on a Yacolt dairy farm, one of 86 Clark County commercial dairies in 1984. Now there are nine dairies in the county, she said.
"Where are all these commercial farmers who want to buy our farms?" she asked rhetorically. "You cannot condemn farmers to a life of poverty; it's a return to feudal serfdom."
Development must be allowed, she said, when farming is no longer economically possible.
"The time to save the ag lands was 20 years ago," she said. "It's too late."
Dean Baker writes about agriculture. Reach him at 360-759-8009 or
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