Sunday, May 23, 2010

May 25, 2010 - Issue of the Week

Protecting Farmland - One Small Piece At A Time

On Tuesday the Whatcom County Council will again take up one of the tools available for protecting our local farmland when we review this year's applications for the Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) Program. Through this program the County uses money from the Conservation Futures Fund to purchase development rights (the right to put a house on the property) from land that falls within targeted areas for protection. This program only deals with willing sellers of such rights, and we don't buy the actual land we just buy the right to put a house on the land that goes with the current zoning (example - a 40 acres piece in an area zoned 1 house/ 5 acres would have 8 development rights). A conservation easement is then placed on the property making it impossible to develop that land in the future.

This is a relatively new program with the first development rights purchased in 2004. In the past six years about 89 development rights have been purchased, protecting 671 acres of good farmland from future development. The cost was about $4.5 million, with the County paying about half of that since the program always tries to use matching state and federal grant money that is available for such purposes. As you can see it is not a cheap program with each development right (each property gets a separate appraisal) costing in the neighborhood of $50,000.

Every survey taken in the County in the past ten years has shown strong support for protecting farmland, and all the various agriculture advisory committees support this program as one way of doing it. This program is one way that the larger community can help farmers keep farming by providing a capital infusion as payment for their development rights. It's a win-win with the farmer getting money needed to keep farming, and the community ensuring that the valuable farmland will be there to farm in the future.

Studies of the prime agricultural soils in the county show that we have about 4000 development rights within those target areas. At $50,000 per development right it would cost about $200 million to protect all that prime farmland through this program. That's where the rub comes in. Normally the Conservation Futures Fund generates about $1 million a year for such purposes, but this year it will only generate a little over $400,000 because the Council majority decided to shift money from the fund last year to other purposes such as law enforcement, courts, planning, the Health Department, etc. It is unclear if that shift will remain in place or whether the money will be redirected to the real purposes of conservation. Even at $1 million per year it would take us way more time than we have got to protect farmland through this program alone.

Some on the Council have said that the PDR program is so slow and ineffectual that why bother with it at all. Sam Crawford has announced his intention numerous times in the past year to put a halt to this program, and has also stated that he thinks it is too late to protect farmland here so let's just move on. On Tuesday we will for the first time find out where the rest of the Council stands on this PDR program. Most everyone, except Mr. Crawford, has given lip service to protecting farmland, so on Tuesday we will find out whether it was just lip service or whether they are willing to sign the check or have other ideas how to do it. For those on the Council who supported gutting the Conservation Future Fund this will be a difficult conundrum.

Personally I think this is a great program to allow all of us who say we want to protect farmland prove it by spending some of our tax dollars to support those willing farmers who are also proving they want the land there for the future of farming also. In 2010 this tax will cost the owner of a $300,000 property $5.14 to help conserve farmland and other valuable conservation areas. Seems like a good investment in the future to me. Yes, progress with just this program is slow, but any progress is better than the alternative.

If you want to read the information about the program and see what properties are up for possible inclusion this year, you can find that information by clicking here. This will be discussed in the Natural Resource Committee at 9:30 AM in the Council Chambers on Tuesday.

***** UPDATE 5/25/10 *******

The Council's Natural Resource Committee (Nelson, Knutzen, Weimer) has recommended unanimously a recommendation that the full Council approve the resolution that will allow the staff to move forward with the evaluation of these proposed properties for possible purchase of these easements. The Council in the future will have to approve the final purchase and sale agreement with the property owners.

There was an interesting discussion of where the Conservation Futures fund came from and whether it was voter approved or not. Here is some background on the Conservation Futures Fund which is used to buy these types of development rights on farmland, as well other park and conservation areas.

• The Conservation Futures tax was approved by the County Council by ordinance in 1992

• After complaints about taxation without a vote of the people the Council sent the tax to a non-binding vote in 1996. The tax was approved by 57.7% f the voters.

• In 2001 there was an attempt by the County Council to budget expenditures from the fund so 50% would be spent on farmland protection and 50 % on other parks/conservation lands. This ordinance was passed by the Council, but was then vetoed by Executive Kremen because of concerns about losing flexibility about how the money could be used.

* The original ordinance, later approved by the voters, set the levy rate at $0.0625 per $1000 of valuation. Or $18.75 per year for a $300,000 property. That rate was collected from 1993 through 2001. In 2002 because of Tim Eyman's I-747 the rate began to decrease. By 2009 the levy rate had fallen to $0.03949 per $1000 of value, or $11.85 on a $3000,000 property.

* For 2010 the rate was further decrease by the Council to $0.01714 per $1000 of value, or $5.14 for a $300,000 property. This was done to shift some of this money to other general fund purposes.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

May 11. 2010 - Issue of the Week

Not much of a blog this week. I was invited a couple days ago to testify to a committee of the U.S. House of Representatives about pipeline safety on May 20th and 150 copies of my testimony needs to be delivered to them in DC by next Monday. I've pretty much got blinders on reviewing ten years of pipeline incident data, so with that and the 428 pages in my Council packet this week I have little time for this blog.

A few items on this week's Council agenda that are worth watching.

The same items I wrote about last time limiting the Council's ability to use banked capacity will be voted on this week. The vote was postponed last time because Council member Brenner had not read the proposals carefully enough and didn't realize that the proposals would become effective immediately instead of putting it on the ballot this fall for a vote. She asked for more time to consider it, and the majority of the council gave her two more weeks.

In the Natural Resources Committee meeting at 9:30 AM on Tuesday there will be a presentation by Farm Friends on their research into natural resource banking. This is an interesting concept that would work to save farmland by creating markets (kind of like carbon trading) that would create such protection. Hopefully Farm Friends have come up with some concrete ideas for implementing this idea, in the past it was quite unclear where the market (millions of dollars necessary) to protect the farmland would come from.

At 11 AM in the Finance Committee we will be talking about spending nearly $4 million on widening Lincoln Road out near Birch Bay. On the one hand this has been the top priority of the Birch Bay community for a long while and has been delayed multiple times. This project made more sense when it was part of a larger project that included a developer funded cnnnector road to shunt traffic from Birch Bay Village to Lincoln Road to reduce traffic on Birch Bay Drive. Unfortunately the developer funded portion of the project is on indefinite hold because the development has pretty much totally dried up. Without that part of the project this road widening is mainly to serve residents of Blaine that live in Semiahmoo and pay no taxes to the County for such road projects.

We will also be talking about applying for a $300,000 grant that if awarded would require the County to provide $300,000 of matching funds. The grant would be used to help acquire part of an old golf course along the Nooksack River in Ferndale for the development of Riverplace Park. I think this is a prime opportunity for a future park, but I do have some significant concerns about the funding sources to be used for the match. On the application it lists Conservation Futures funding as the source, yet the voter approved Conservation Futures fund has been seriously diverted into the General Fund to cover current holes in the budget. There is also mention of using Flood Funds for the match because the area is an "important area to preserve for off river storage capacity during flood events." The area is in the flood plain and can not be developed, so the storage capacity during floods will be there with or without the Flood Fund being used to help purchase it.

Finally, at 1 PM we will be talking about a draft ordinance to once again amend the Comprehensive Plan to expand the Urban Growth Areas around Sumas, Nooksack, Birch Bay and Ferndale. This is the current Council majority's plan to expand UGAs beyond what the County Executive's plan called for last year and what the previous Council approved.

Should be a full day.