Futurewise's column "Proposed Whatcom agricultural land zoning will grow houses, not farms" leaves out far too many facts. Parcel reconfiguration is one of many management tools that our county needs to ensure long-term protection of our farmland.
Landowners in ag areas can already build residences on the many "substandard" (under 40 acre) parcels, which characterize most of our ag land. Fortunately, nearly 2,000 potential residences in the ag zone have not yet been exercised. We agree with Futurewise that the best plan would be to work to ensure that the large majority of these residences are never built. That is why we have helped to develop a "purchase of development right" program and we consistently advocate for a workable development right transfer program. These programs are crucial to the mutual goals of long-term farmland protection and respect for the property values of landowners.
It will take multiple tools to protect the 85,000 acres currently zoned "ag" and the additional 22,000 acres under review for heightened protection in the Rural Study Areas. There are up to 4,000 estimated development rights in these areas. Whatcom County's purchase of development right program has retired 110 of these rights in the past nine years of the program at an average cost of $23,183 per development right. Do the math. We have neither the time nor the public money to do the job on its own.
Transfer of development rights have more promise, but where will these development rights be transferred to? Futurewise says cities. That sounds good, but cities are seeking means to create incentives for infill. Requiring the purchase of development rights from ag areas to be transferred to cities adds to the cost of infill. Hardly an incentive.
The county should consider creating or augmenting its own designated areas on lower quality soils where development rights from resource lands could be transferred. Could we expect Futurewise to join us in developing this idea?
All houses in ag areas are not undesirable. We will need to rationally accommodate some of these development rights and ensure they are built on sites with the least possible impact on farms. That is what parcel reconfiguration is all about. This tool was not written by developers or by farmers who want to be developers. The proposed code language is clear about its intent to minimize the impact of residences and maximize the protection of farmland. It will not provide for one more development right than what currently exists.
Preserving our farms and farmland is a long-term struggle that is best led by our farmers. They are engaged in this day by day and they have come up with numerous proposals that can help them manage their land and water productively. We fully welcome the help of groups like Futurewise on protecting our land and would hope that they and others would be equally concerned about our being able to productively farm it. That implies needed drainage, water rights and public policies that engage farmers as partners in resource management rather than targets for enforcement.
The Whatcom County Council needs to resist "feel good" arguments about saving farmland. Closely examine the details of how parcel reconfiguration works and why it was proposed. It is a helpful tool to help us towards our goals of protection of more of our valuable farmland and the farmers who manage it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Henry Bierlink is executive director of Whatcom Farm Friends. For more information, go online to wcfarmfriends.com.