Farming for answers: 'Resource land' decision worries landowners - Many say zoning, environmental and tax laws are forcing them off their land

Sunday, July 27, 2003

By DEAN BAKER, Columbian staff writer

Many property owners say they're being forced off their land by the very zoning, environmental and tax laws designed to preserve Clark County's disappearing farms and forests.

The forestland and farm owners say they want to keep raising timber, hay and grain. But the low prices their crops command, along with an array of regulations protecting streams and wildlife, plus impractical zoning, often make that impossible.

Some argue that the uncertain regulatory climate accelerates development, especially on farmland that borders new buildings and houses. As landowners see regulations and sprawl approaching, they have hurried to cut timber or turn their farms into housing developments before they lose that option and their land declines in value.

Clark County's commissioners will face this issue again Tuesday night when they are expected to decide whether to turn 3,500 acres of rural residential property into "resource land" for farms and forests.

It's a hearing with huge implications for 25 owners of 42 parcels of property and for the future urban-rural split in Clark County. If the zoning change passes, owners will be able to sell their land only in 20-acre parcels to other farmers. Today, they have the option to sell five- or 10-acre parcels to residential developers. Twenty acres of farmland, if there's even any demand for it, would sell as little as 10 percent of what it would bring in five-acre tracts for a housing development.

"What planners are doing is forcing people to cut timber and subdivide land," said Don Kullberg, 72, a third- generation Yacolt farmer who has been fighting restrictions for a decade. "I'd be interested to know how much land would have been divided, or how many trees wouldn't have been cut without the regulators."

The threat of zoning changes has been among the economic pressures driving farmers off their land for more than a decade.

Peach and nut grower Waldo Kunze sold nine acres of pie cherry and peach orchard for development this year as the property became surrounded by subdivisions. The Kunze family is still hanging on to 40 acres, but it's close to the city and likely to be in high demand among developers one day. Woodland berry grower George Tsugawa sold farm tracts to a developer, and Vancouver berry man Vinton Erickson also sold land.

Encroaching urbanization and traffic at the Ridgefield junction with Interstate 5 made farming difficult for fourth-generation Clark County farmer Bob Zimmerly, even though he owned high-quality land.

Zimmerly hung a price tag of $59,500 an acre on his 236-acre potato farm and eventually sold out for about $15 million. He moved his combines, lowboys, trucks and tractors north to Chehalis where he and his sons leased 700 acres. The Ridgefield land is being converted into a mixed-use development called Union Ridge that includes a 600,000-square-foot Dollar Tree distribution warehouse.

"They welcome us at Chehalis," Zimmerly said at the time. "You can move a piece of farm equipment down the road there without someone giving you the finger."

Dozens more owners have sold pieces of "edge" farms and forests when subdivisions reached their fencelines. As sewer and water systems become available and the price of land goes up, it becomes more attractive for farmers to sell.

Counting on retail sales

At best, zoning hasn't stopped displacement of farms.

It certainly hasn't helped innovative farmer-retailers such as Bill and Peggy Zimmerman with their roadside stand and family-friendly pumpkin patch and corn maze. Or, Joe and Gayle Beaudoin's Joe's Place Farm with its extensive U-pick operation and farm store filled with homegrown fruits and vegetables. These families make all of their money from their retail stores selling what they produce. Without retail, their farming operations would lose money.

"It's kind of the only way farmers can make it," said Beaudoin, because profits are uncertain when dealing with the diminishing number of fruit and vegetable packers and competition from growers in China, Mexico or Chile.

Ron Andersen survived by expanding. A one-time pig farmer who sold his hogs and built the biggest agriculture operation in the county, he vertically integrated to include milk processing and bottling, a plastic bottle-manufacturing plant and a truck line as well as 1,200 acres and 1,200 cows producing 10,000 gallons of milk a day.

Bigger and more diverse operations work.

In Oregon, the notion that big blocks of farmland are needed for efficiency gained recognition in the 1970s. The state adopted an exclusive farm use zone that has saved much of the state's agriculture. Washington was 20 years slower in trying to save farmlands, acting long after subdivisions had sprawled across some of the best farmland in Clark County.

Heisson farmer Alan Schumacher said he wanted the county to install agricultural zoning on blocks of land of 150, 200 acres or more many years ago, long before the Growth Management Act movement began in 1990. Instead, he said, the county now is doing too little too late.

Farmer Don Kullberg concurs.

"The Willamette Valley has had zoning for years and years, but it's too late for Clark County," said Kullberg. "If you are going to save resource lands you don't bar the door after the cows get out."

Public hearing on Tuesday

* WHAT: 3,500-acre remand hearing

* WHEN: 7 p.m.Tuesday

* WHERE: Clark County Fire District 3, 17718 N.E. 159th St., Brush Prairie

Properties on line

1. E.L. and Gladys Uhacz, trustees, Vancouver, 80.65 acres

2. Diamond B Ranch Inc., Vancouver, 40.14 acres

3. Hambleton Bros. Lumber Co., Washougal, 79.09 acres

4. Samuel K. DeLoach Jr., Washougal, 40.11 acres

5. William and Mildred Aldrich, et al., Camas, 50.67 acres

6. Emmet and Florine Wheeler, Camas, 77.54 acres

7. State Forest Board, Camas, 73.62 acres

8. Alan W. Schumacher, Heisson, 97.72 acres

9. Donald P. and Nanette Kullberg, Yacolt, 193.92 acres

10. Patricia Marinier, Yacolt, 186.78 acres

11. Marian J. Teel, Yacolt, 76.12 acres

12. E. and L. Wirtanen, Yacolt, 37.28 acres

13. Anthony L. Hannan, Yacolt, 40 acres

14. William C. Rinta, Yacolt, 30 acres

15. John and Debbie Rinta, Yacolt, 30 acres

16. Kathleen M. Rinta, Yacolt, 22.13 acres

17. William D. Elmer, La Center, 32.98 acres

18. Carol West, La Center, 40.47 acres

19. Karalie, Relyea, Dan and Betty Pehlke, La Center, 50.05 acres

20. First Independent Bank, La Center, 67.17 acres

21. State Forest Board, Ridgefield, 113.1 acres

22. Jay C. Niblett, La Center, 57.95 acres.

23. George Reich, La Center, 72.17 acres

24. Clark D. Holcomb, Battle Ground, 63.56.

25. F.L. and Shirley Goodwin, Washougal, 60 acres.

26. George Lobey, Ridgefield, 79.16 acres.

TOTAL: 1792.38 acres.

Dean Baker writes about agriculture. Reach him at 360-759-8009 or e-mail


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