The Old Dilemma: Farmland or Growth - What happens when property owners want to sell land for commercial development?

Skagit Valley Herald


Lois and Bill White had been farming 80 acres northwest of Burlington for 43 years. They want to have their property annexed into the city and sell it to someone who might build a motel, restaurant or large retail store.Matt Wallis / Skagit Valley Herald

BURLINGTON, WA -- Bill White spent four decades planting and picking strawberries, peas and corn on his 80 acres.

But a debilitating stroke nine years ago forced him to give up farming, and set his sights toward selling his property to someone who might develop a large box retail store or a motel and restaurant.

"This is my retirement property," White said, staring over the fields, now planted by other farmers leasing the land.

Across the acres of land planted with potatoes, White can see Interstate 5 and Burlington's industrial park. "It's a natural for turning into a commercial property," he said.

White is one of several property owners who want Burlington to extend its long-term growth area and eventually annex 174 acres of farmland scattered in separate parcels around the edges of the city. White's property makes up the largest portion of that total acreage.

The requests present a fresh look at an old dilemma: how to preserve farmland in the face of growth.

With the new requests and expected growth, city planners say it's time for a long-term approach for annexations, especially to the west of the city where growth is booming and running into agriculture.

"We have no real policy framework," said Burlington Planning Director Margaret Fleek. "We have a lot of alternatives that need to be explored."

The City Council will consider extending the long-term growth area June 26. The council then will submit recommendations for those proposals to the Skagit County commissioners by July 31 for review. The county has the final say about which properties will be included in the city limits.

Preservationists object
Meantime, advocates of farmland preservation are warning Burlington to back off. They say individual property owners shouldn't be able to develop anything they want at the expense of Burlington's rich agricultural base.

"If the city wants to remain the center of the Berry Dairy Days, there had better be some berries and dairies left in the future," said Bob Rose, executive director of Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland.

Burlington has faced plenty of criticism through the years for paving over miles of prime farmland, including the Cascade Mall property off Burlington Boulevard that used to be covered in tulips.

Since 1989, the city has expanded its boundaries to include 829 acres around its edges.

Taking more land into the city means increasing the tax base, which helps to pay for city services such as streets, sewers and fire and police protection.

But that usually happens at the expense of farmland, Rose said. Most of what's left around the fringes of Burlington's boundaries are rolling farm fields, he added.

Land means retirement
White says he bought the property with the purpose of eventually selling it for commercial development. Now, years later, White worries that he may not be able to do that.

The food processors that used to dot the valley are now gone. Prices for crops have gone down and farmers can't make a living with their land anymore, he said.

If he can't sell the land, White says it isn't much good to him.

"We feel like we can't do with our land what we want to do," White said. "Now, what's yours isn't really your own anymore."

The city's long-term growth boundaries were drawn by Skagit County in 1997. At the time, city leaders wanted the westerly long-term boundary to stop at Pulver Road.

What the city received from the county was a growth boundary that zig-zags around the city limits. Irregular boundaries make providing city services to properties at the edge of the city difficult, Fleek said.

Part of discussing the long-term growth boundaries comes from a need to straighten those lines, control growth and meet state requirements, Fleek said.

The state is recommending that the city update its long-term growth plans and boundaries by 2005. Growth pressures to the west also are pushing the city to reconsider its long-term growth boundaries.

Other issues in play
Several other issues have developed during the past five years that could affect where the westerly long-term growth boundary is drawn, Fleek said.

First, the city may have to consider annexing some property near Bay View Ridge if the area doesn't become a separate city or town, Fleek said. Skagit County has identified Bay View Ridge as a rural area eligible for commercial, industrial and some residential development.

City officials also plan to annex some property currently outside the city's growth boundary to make water quality and habitat improvements to Gages Slough.

Annexing that property would allow the city to use park impact fee credits to buy the property and make the improvements.

In addition, the city wants to have control of land that will will partially disappear when the Skagit River dikes are pulled back by 500 feet in the future as part of the city's flood control plan.

City planners have suggested making Pulver Road the western boundary. That would take care of several issues, but leave the Bay View Ridge issue unresolved. That suggestion also would not address about 30 acres the Burlington-Edison School District wants annexed.

The Burlington-Edison School District has signed an agreement to purchase 28 acres at the southwest corner of Peterson and Pulver roads to build a school some day. The school district needs more space to accommodate the students who will live in the Bay View area, said Rick Jones, school district superintendent.

The sale depends on changing the zoning of the property, Jones said.

Beverly Crichfield can be reached at 360-416-2132 or by e-mail at


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