Farmers Shouldn't Be Bound to Marginal Land - Restrictive zoning under GMA hold farmers hostage on their own land

Editorial by Yakima Herald


It's easy to find good points on both sides of the debate over whether to loosen the shackles of restrictive zoning so farmers and growers can sell their unprofitable land for uses other than farming.

* Opponents of such a change in Yakima County's application of the state Growth Management Act raise understandable objections when they don't want to see peaceful rural settings transformed into housing developments or even mini-malls, bringing more traffic and increasing demand on public services.

* Yet there's something wrong when laws or regulations can force farmers to be held hostage on their own land.

...let's face it: GMA resulted primarily from concerns about urban sprawl in Western Washington. We're not convinced it was designed to dictate local economic decisions in rural areas. ...

And that, unfortunately, is what's happening with so-called marginal farm lands that are colliding with GMA restrictions.

A downturn in the farm economy and the changing character of farming have left many small apple growers and farmers, mostly in the Upper Valley, unable to compete against larger farms, especially the newer, high-yield operations. Coupled with that reality, however, is the fact that the county's comprehensive plan called Plan 2015 limits the ability of agricultural property owners to sell their land for development.

In other words, the land is no longer profitable as a family farm, but it can't be sold for anything but farm use. That must change, even if it requires accommodating changes in the GMA itself.

The state law, which is the basis for the county plan, requires counties to update their plans every five years. The law was designed to stop urban sprawl by focusing growth in and around communities. Another focus was to protect farmland that has long-term significance.

The conflict occurs when the sprawl from those communities begins to expand into agricultural areas that are perhaps no longer best suited for farming anyway.

We have no quarrel with the premise of protecting farmland as the county's economic base. That has been a basic theme in comprehensive planning in Yakima County since before the GMA made it a requirement.

But times have changed and so have the economics of farming. Yakima County commissioners are pondering a series of recommendations made by the county planning commission, which were based on the work of an agriculture task force.

Proposals include allowing land owners to create additional parcels on their property to sell for homesites or to sell parcels of less than 40 acres to another farmer.

Whatever the final details are, the fact remains that times have changed in agriculture and it's time for local zoning to reflect and accommodate it.

The state Growth Management Act sets out some needed guidelines for controlling growth, but let's face it: GMA resulted primarily from concerns about urban sprawl in Western Washington. We're not convinced it was designed to dictate local economic decisions in rural areas.

With that in mind, we would hope commissioners opt for some loosening of requirements that hold farmers hostage on their own lands. That's simply not fair, nor do we think it was it the intent of the original thrust of the Growth Management Act.


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