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Farm Bureau discusses GMA, eminent domain with Senate committee

Jan. 18, 2007

The Senate Government Operations and Elections Committee entertained briefing sessions on eminent domain and growth management issues Thursday, Jan. 18.

Farm Bureau was among the organizations and offices invited to provide perspectives on these difficult issues.

Dan Wood, Washington Farm Bureau director of local affairs, told the senators that Washington’s diverse agricultural industry provides critical environmental benefits like water filtration, flood control, open space, fish and wildlife habitat, and scenic views.

In addition, our farms and food processing provide one in 10 jobs and comprise the largest segment of our state economy. Farm Bureau also pointed out the newly-opened doors to develop a viable renewable fuels sector within Washington agriculture.

The environmental, economic, and employment benefits from Washington farms are only possible if our family farms remain viable, Farm Bureau told the committee.

When local governments contemplate large buffers, farm viability is threatened.

Last year, Jefferson County considered buffers of up to 450 feet along rivers and streams. Adoption of such buffers would put most farms out of business.

Meanwhile, the Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development has “example” codes containing model language for buffers of 200 feet, 300 feet, and even entire floodplains. Critical Areas Assistance Handbook, Appendix A: Example Code Provisions for Designating and Protecting Critical Areas, A-6. (2003)

Wood illustrated the impact by referring to a specific farm in Grays Harbor County that would lose about 61 acres of production if a 200-foot buffer were adopted. The farm produces sweet corn, silage corn, hay, and milk. Sixty-one acres is enough to produce more than 1.89 million ears of sweet corn annually. The loss of production and revenue could drive the farm out of business.

Farm Bureau is seeking adoption of legislation to protect legally existing agricultural activities on agricultural lands from new ordinances adopted under the Growth Management Act. A similar provision was added to the Shoreline Management Act in 2002.

During the 2006 property rights initiative campaign, opponents of Initiative 933 said they supported protection of agricultural uses of farmland.

It’s time to deliver on that promise,” said Wood. “We’re looking for a down payment on sincerity.”

Farm Bureau expressed the need to resolve general property rights issues, but pointed out that this legislation, sponsored by Sen. Brian Hatfield (D-Raymond) and Rep. Brian Blake (D-Aberdeen) is necessary to keep farms alive now.

The agricultural lobby and the Association of Washington Business also support the legislation. If protecting farming in our state is truly a priority, this existing model of agricultural protection should be extended into the Growth Management Act.

In a second panel presentation, Farm Bureau urged the senators to protect our rights in our property by addressing eminent domain abuses.

One example is that of Lovie Nichols from Bremerton. The city took her property through eminent domain, officially because they wanted to expand their sewage treatment plant, but then sold it to a car dealership.

A second threat to the security of our property is government taking more property than is needed for a particular project. In a 7-2 ruling, the state Supreme Court found it acceptable for the Seattle Monorail to seize an entire lot even though only a small portion was needed and to sell the remainder at a profit.

The third issue is that of proper notice. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court held that posting a notice on a website is all the notice a government agency needs to give before holding a meeting at which they condemn a person’s property. This case arose from actions by Sound Transit to take property from the Miller family.

And what should we do when an agency takes property it ultimately does not need or use? The Monorail took property from many owners near the Space Needle. When the proposed station project was abandoned, those owners had to make bids on property that should have never been taken from them. If they were successful, they had to pay more than they had received when the property was taken from them.

We also note that there are times when an agency designs its plans to purposely impact certain private properties. We have seen this with a threatened eminent domain action that would have bisected a farm with a nature trail, despite an offer from the farmer to donate land along the edge of his farm for that purpose.

We have also seen media and think-tank reports that indicate city of Burien staff intentionally designed a new street to go through the middle of an existing restaurant that did not meet the vision for redeveloping that area.

Clearly, there are abuses of eminent domain powers by state and local governments in Washington. These abuses can and should be corrected.



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