Measures could turn farmlands into ballfields

By Emily Heffter
Times Snohomish County bureau

3/5/03

Snohomish County, WA - Get Snohomish County Councilman John Koster a plow, a tractor and a soccer field, and he says he can rule out the biggest argument against allowing ballfields on protected agricultural land.

While preservationists say the land would never again be used for farming, Koster, a former dairyman, says it's just a matter of loosening up the dirt.

Besides the lost peace and quiet (think "Field of Dreams"), opponents say building baseball diamonds and soccer fields on protected agricultural land would do irreparable damage to one of the county's most valuable commodities.

Four proposed changes in the law would address the issue.

Two bills in the state Legislature one in the House and one in the Senate would allow ballfields on protected agricultural land. In Snohomish County, the planning department is recommending the County Council approve ballfields on all but the most protected farmland. Another recommendation, from the county's Agricultural Advisory Board, says the county should allow ballfields on all agricultural land.

The County Council voted unanimously last week to support the state bills. The council will consider the county proposals later this year.

If the measures pass, farmers could sell or rent their land to sports leagues. Some county leaders have even suggested the county parks department buy some agricultural land, build ballfields and allow residents to use them.

Marilyn Hoggarth, president of Agriculture for Tomorrow, said building playfields on agricultural land is shortsighted and jeopardizes the local food supply. Besides that, she said, it would pose a transportation problem if people have to travel to ballfields in the boonies. "I feel that with all the development going on ... that these things really need to be developed near where the population is," she said.

The bills would bar permanent development on agricultural land, including lighting. The idea is that the land could be used for playing soccer and baseball now and converted back into agricultural land if it were needed.

"If we need the agricultural ground back for producing agriculture, it's real easy to convert it back," said Mark Craven, a Snohomish-area farmer.

But Kristin Kelly of 1000 Friends of Washington in Snohomish County said those fields might never be converted. Kids aren't going to stop playing ball, she said.

In January, the state Court of Appeals ruled that a Redmond soccer league could build soccer fields on fallow farmland in King County. In past years, the Metropolitan King County Council voted not to support similar state bills, citing a commitment to preserve agricultural land. The council hasn't taken a stand on the most recent proposed legislation. A 2000 state Supreme Court ruling prohibited ballfields on protected farmland in King County.

But Snohomish County has twice the agricultural land King County has, Koster said, and it's important for landowners to have an option besides farming.

"I think in this county we've done a good job thus far of protecting agricultural land, but you've got to have some latitude here," Koster said.

More than 600 north Snohomish County kids are counting on the bill so they can play baseball legally, said Randy Pack, a representative of the North Snohomish Little League. The league will lose its 12 ballfields in Snohomish at the end of September because of a squabble over an access road. The nonprofit group can't afford land in residential areas, Pack said, and it can't legally build fields on farmland.

"Most of these farmlands aren't being used as farmland now," he said. "I have been trying to do this legally for five years. I think there should be able to be a compromise."

Emily Heffter: 425-783-0624 or eheffter@seattletimes.com


 

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