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.

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