Keeping a legacy of farming alive - County buyout plan dedicates
farmland to agricultural uses
J.C. Dellinger has been farming the same piece of land for 20 years.
The plot, nearly 40 acres, has provided Dellinger with a living raising cucumbers and potatoes. But it's just west of Interstate 5 and Burlington, and development is coming. He already can see the houses to the south, along Peterson Road.
However, Dellinger's land will never be converted into homes and back yards.
Frank Varga / Skagit Valley Herald
In October, Dellinger sold the development rights on the land to Skagit County, dedicating the land to agriculture forever.
"It's probably more money to wait for development than to keep it in farming, but I wanted to keep it in farming, and my boy wanted to keep it in farming, so that's what we did," Dellinger said.
Dellinger's acres are part of about 2,500 acres protected by the county's Farmland Legacy program since 1998. The acreage is spread out across the landscape from Alger to Conway, mostly between the Swinomish Channel and Sedro-Woolley, in parcels as small as four acres and as large as 565 acres.
Here is how it works:
Property owners sign a contract with the county that eliminates development rights. Owners can still farm the land, subdivide it, add drainage ditches or build a tool shed. But the contract means the owner, and anyone who buys the land in the future, can't convert the land to any use but farming.
Property owners don't just give up the development rights without reward. The county pays money for those rights.
Most of the $2.4 million paid out so far to landowners around the county has come from local property taxes.
Property owners pay a tax of 6.25 cents per $1,000, or about $10 a year for the typical homeowner, toward the fund that buys up development rights. Skagit County commissioners added the tax in December of 1996.
Once, the county also received money from Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland, a local private nonprofit group, to help buy development right.
In addition, the county has secured federal tax grants to supplement the local monies. About $660,000 in federal money has yet to be spent on buying development rights. That money will push the total paid out to farmers beyond the $3 million mark.
That money helps keep farmland in production, said Rich Doenges, director of the county program. Some farmers have used the money to pay down their debts, while others have purchased additional land, seed or equipment so they can keep farming, he said.
With the development rights extinguished, the farmland will be more affordable for other farmers to buy, Doenges said, because restrictions on the land's use limits its market value. That will help keep the land from sitting idle if the current farmer retires.
In Dellinger's case, the $72,611 he received for the development rights has gone into the bank. The 81-year-old farmer said he expects it to be his retirement fund.
The contract between the county and landowner makes it very difficult for those involved to change their minds, Doenges said. Even if future county commissioners wanted to let the land be developed, they would have to agree with the landowner, and then convince a judge to void the contract, he said.
The long-term implications of the contract suit Dellinger. He bought the land just three years ago after renting it for 17 years.
"I didn't buy it to sell," he said. "I bought it to keep."
He owns two other parcels to round out his operation, although those aren't likely to enter the program, he said.
While some Skagit County farmers see a bleak future for their land, Dellinger is optimistic. His son is already farming, and even his grandson wants to stay in the life.
It's a hard life, Dellinger said. "But it's a good life, farming's a good life," he said.
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