Guest columnist: Conversion to athletic fields gives farmers time to regroup

By Dan Kristiansen
Special to The Seattle Times


Snohomish County, WA - Snohomish County's unexpected announcement of plans to crack down on the use of idle farmland for sports fields understandably has brought a sharp response from adults who lead and support youth athletic associations.

Many are disappointed by County Executive Aaron Reardon's decision to put enforcement of the state's Growth Management Act, which forbids recreational facilities on designated farmland, over the needs of their children.

With Reardon determined to shut down any facilities operating beyond next May, and knowing that youth sports associations directly affecting an estimated 15,000 families are at risk, these dedicated folks realize their best hope is for the Legislature to change the law during its 2005 session.

I understand their frustration and sense of despair. I heard it first years ago from Snohomish County farmers who could only watch from the sidelines as their livelihoods, not just their weeknight and weekend activities, were dashed by the GMA. This is a problem in many communities throughout the state.

Ironically, the GMA's devastating effect on agriculture has a lot to do with why these "illegal" fields exist today. Forced out of farming by GMA restrictions that took away their ability to compete in a global agricultural market, farmers struggled to preserve the value of their land by finding new uses for it.

Some were lucky enough to sell their land for housing developments. The families who bought those homes created a market for land for recreational facilities. Where could they find good, flat land suitable for soccer fields? From other farmers, who eagerly embraced income from ballfields as a means to stave off financial ruin caused by the GMA.

The adults who want to save the farmland-based recreation fields they've worked so hard to create say they want to "educate" the Legislature. Unfortunately, that isn't the answer. Legislators already understand the issue, which was on the Snohomish County Council list of legislative priorities the past two years. They could have settled it simply by passing House Bill 1955, a bipartisan measure that would have allowed the use of agricultural lands not currently being farmed as sites for recreational activities.

But Rep. Sandra Romero, D-Olympia, the chairwoman of the House Local Government Committee, refused to allow even a public hearing on HB 1955 in the 2003 or 2004 legislative sessions. Similar legislation passed both years by the Senate, with Republican and Democrat support, met the same fate when it got to the House.

What's needed is not education but a change of heart in the House, which can come about by challenging the charges made by environmental, anti-sprawl activists those who label themselves as "friends" of our state and claim to "promote healthy communities" while working to limit families' recreational choices.

These so-called friends confuse the protection of farmland with the protection of farming itself. They make it sound like they want to protect farming, yet they support land-use regulations that force farmers out of business. Isn't farmland protected best when it's being farmed?

Despite their recent proposal to cut a deal on the Snohomish ballfields, their approach to protecting farmland overall doesn't make sense for Washington. I don't see how a piece of property is harmed less by fencing for animals than by a fence put up as a baseball backstop. And which disrupts the land more: tilling it to plant crops, or putting portable concession stands, temporary bleachers and chalk lines on it?

If land can't be used any longer for raising crops, I say we allow it to be used to help parents raise their children, through recreation. The life skills our kids develop by playing soccer or baseball are a priority today. Should peas or corn become a priority in future years, the land can easily be put back into production.

For years, former Snohomish County Executive Bob Drewel and his staff stayed out of the way while youth recreation facilities popped up on idle farmland. That makes our situation more urgent. Looking ahead to the 2005 session, it's fortunate that the adults who get involved in youth sports tend to be a passionate bunch, because changing the law is going to require some passionate action.

With the help of these volunteers and the Snohomish County Council and, hopefully, with Reardon and environmental groups as well I look toward having a reasonable solution to this crisis ready when the Legislature convenes in January.

Rep. Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish, represents the 39th Legislative District, which includes rural Snohomish County as well as parts of King, Skagit and Whatcom counties. He serves on the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee and co-sponsored HB 1955.



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