For nearly 20 years, our County Council has identified the preservation of farmland and working farms as a top priority. In doing so, the council set a goal to protect 100,000 acres of farmland in order to maintain the critical amount of land needed to support our diverse farm economy. This is a necessary goal - albeit ambitious - for our community if we want to protect our farm heritage and economy.
Currently we have nearly 88,500 acres of zoned agricultural land. We're still missing an area the size of three Ferndales, so the county and its Agriculture Advisory Committee adopted an Agriculture Strategic Plan with a list of strategies and tools to protect 100,000 acres.
Unfortunately, one of the strategies now being considered -- Agricultural Parcel Reconfiguration - will jeopardize the viability of farming in Whatcom County by making it easier to grow homes next to our crops.
We have some of the most beautiful and productive farmland in the nation. According to the 2007 United States Census of Agriculture, our county produces more than 65 percent of the nation's red raspberries and our dairy cows account for 57 percent of our county's market value of agricultural products. But, Whatcom County has a problem. Many of those big berry fields we see out there are actually carved into smaller parcels that combine to make larger fields.
The Agricultural Parcel Reconfiguration ordinance allows farmers to take lots that are considered "substandard" because they are less than 40-acres - the minimum lot size in the agriculture zone - and reconfigure them. After reconfiguration, the property owner is left with one large lot - to continue farming - and up to six lots that are one-to-three acres a piece that could be developed. Potential buyers of these lots would be attracted by the affordability of the smaller lot where they could build their dream home with epic views of Mount Baker and green fields.
Farming is romanticized by Dodge commercials and "Little House on the Prairie," but anyone who does it for a living knows it is a dirty, smelly, noisy job. A working farm is an industrial operation and requires certain allowances from its neighbors. Some people who move to the country expect the early morning rumble of an idling tractor or the eau-de-dairy cow in the air and embrace it. Others do not and they can make a farmer's life miserable with complaints for activities that are part of the business of farming. Farming and non-farm housing, like the type this tool would create, are inherently incompatible.
Given that county staff estimates up to 1,780 development rights in the agriculture zone, this new ordinance would make it easier for farmland to grow houses, not crops.
We think the county should leave the farmland for the farmers. And we're not alone.
The planning commission struggled with this issue as well. After holding two public hearings they split their votes 5-4 with planning commissioners Jeff Rainey, Rod Erickson, Ken Bell and Gary Honcoop voting against it. Commissioners Rainey and Erickson, two of the farmers on the commission, spoke passionately about the conflicts between houses and farming. And, commissioner Honcoop said he believed the ordinance would accelerate development in farmland.
Now this ordinance is up for consideration by the County Council's Planning and Development Committee.
We urge the council to reject this ordinance and begin working on the other tools and strategies in the Agriculture Strategic Plan that will actually get us closer to our goal. Specifically, the council should look at tools that will protect farmland like a working transfer of development rights program. This program would redirect potential development out of farmland and into cities where it belongs. Only if we turn our attention to tools that are proven to protect agricultural land, like transfer of development rights, will we reach our goal of protecting 100,000 of farmland in Whatcom County.
Farming has a long and proud history in Whatcom County. If we want our children and grandchildren to have land to farm, we all need to take action now. We need to get serious about protecting 100,000 acres of farmland. The Agricultural Parcel Reconfiguration ordinance should be rejected because it is the wrong direction for farmland protection.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kate Blystone is director of the Whatcom Chapter of Futurewise, the local chapter of a statewide land-use advocacy organization. Futurewise, futurewise.org/Whatcom, works to promote healthy communities and cities while protecting working farms, working forests, and shorelines.