County Reduces Ag Land - Economics helped decision to aid farmers who can't make a living from the land



Yakima, WA - In the largest-ever shift of land in county history, Yakima County commissioners on Wednesday agreed to take more than 5 square miles of land out of agriculture.

The switch of 3,450 acres of land in the vicinity of five Valley communities to rural housing amounting to less than 1 percent of county land currently designated for agriculture may not be the last.

Commissioners took public testimony last week on the proposed shift and met Wednesday evening to make decisions on six recommendations on the future of farm land in the county.

No public testimony was taken at Wednesday's review session.

But before further reviews can take place, the decision could be challenged from either end of the land-use spectrum: Those who believe the county went too far and those who believe more should have been done.

Commissioners, wrapping up months of study on farm land issues by a task force and county planners, decided to ask the Legislature to include some recognition of economics in the state's definition of what constitutes farm land.

The state Growth Management Act requires counties to protect farm and forest lands that are the basis of the county's economy.

Commissioners created the task force to deal with concerns that the Growth Management Act prohibits small-farm owners from selling their land for other uses even when they are losing money in a depressed farm economy.

That concern has been a common theme since the county adopted its first comprehensive plan in 1997, based on the 1990 state law.

Commissioner Jim Lewis said the ability to continue farming ought to be included in the state's farmland definition.

"I'm seeing folks getting up in years with 20 acres of old apples," he said. "They can't afford to replant. They have nothing but 50 years of working the land."

But Lewis added the county has to be cautious not to allow 10 home sites in the middle of farming districts that would create conflicts between rural homeowners and farmers.

The switch of land near Selah, Yakima, Moxee, Zillah and Sunnyside was based on soil type and 10 state criteria under which counties can determine what lands should be in agriculture.

Tom Durant of Yakima, a private land-use consultant and former county planner, said after the meeting that soil type should be the controlling factor when deciding whether to take land out of agriculture.

Commissioners also agreed to allow farmers to sell off a piece of their land to another farmer and allowed farmers to create a new housing lot on their property every 10 years, instead of the current 15 years.


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