Pilot taxpayer-funded project to save farms OK'd -Farmers can sell off development rights, sealing land from development forever

By Emily Heffter
Times Snohomish County bureau


ARLINGTON, WA— All along Highway 530, Stillaguamish Valley farmers are bailing out.

Paint peels off empty farmhouses, broken-down trucks and tractors with flat tires are parked in old barns, and for-sale signs swing from their posts. Every now and then, a new house juts out from a fallow field, a sign a farmer has given up and turned to his only option: one house per 10 acres.

An effort to save Snohomish County farmland cleared its first major hurdle last week with a County Council vote in support of a Stillaguamish Valley pilot project. But it passed without the blessing of early proponents 1000 Friends of Washington, a growth-watchdog group, and Councilman Dave Gossett, D-Mountlake Terrace.

Gossett and 1000 Friends field coordinator Kristin Kelly said the version that passed last week is too open-ended. In addition to saving farmland, the program, called Transfer of Development Rights, could promote sprawl, they said.

The program would allow farmers to sell the rights to develop their land, sealing the land forever for agricultural use. Developers could buy the rights and use them elsewhere — for extra density in an in-town development or an extra story on a commercial building, for example.

One intent is for farmers to make money without having to sell off their farms. If the Stillaguamish Valley pilot project works, supporters want to expand it to include the whole county.

The latest dispute is about where the development rights could be used. Councilman John Koster, R-Arlington, said the program won't work unless there is a market for development rights. He wants to allow developers to use the rights in rural areas of the county and envisions a ring of 1-acre lots around the boundaries of Arlington's urban-growth area.

"The real problem here is obviously we have (farmland) up the gazoo," Koster said. "The problem is creating a market so the developers will actually go out and make a deal with the private-property owner."

Now that the council has passed the framework for a program, it's up to the council and planning staff to work out the details — what a development-rights certificate would look like, how many the county should buy to get the program started and where the rights would be eligible. That's a lot of controversial detail, and farmland is disappearing fast, Koster said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has granted the county up to $552,000 in matching funds to implement the pilot.

Randy Faber has been trying to sell his father's dairy farm since his father died two years ago. He is in the process of having it subdivided into 10-acre residential parcels but said he would consider selling the development rights to the farm and leasing it as farmland.

"This is a business decision," he said. "My impression is everybody's kind of waiting to see what's the county going to offer."

Gossett and 1000 Friends both said they want to work out the details with council Republicans. But Koster said critics seem to want all or nothing. If they won't negotiate, he said, "they will kill this project."

Kelly said Koster is the one who won't compromise.

"It sounds to me like he wants it all, and he can't have it all," she said.


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