The Dirt Issue 32 – Collaborating to Preserve Farmland

Posted on October 31, 2018
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Working Together to Preserve Farmland

In 1989, an attempt was made to have a nearly 400-acre tract of prime agricultural land alongside I-5 rezoned for an amusement park. On the face of it, it may not have seemed such a big deal, but for those in the know it would have adversely affected Skagit agriculture in many ways. Obviously, those acres would be permanently out of production and neighboring farming would be impacted in ways ranging from drainage to traffic to curtailing efficient crop rotation. Perhaps most regrettable would be giving in to the push for “development.”

Not wanting to see Skagit agriculture go the way of the Kent Valley, Puyallup, and other agricultural regions in Puget Sound, five farm families worked together to found Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland (SPF) and successfully fought the rezoning. The farmland stayed in production, but the story did not end there.

Really, it had only just begun.

The threat certainly wasn’t over and stopping after one battle wasn’t an option. As new issues arose, SPF saw its mission coalescing to what we think of as supporting the four-legs of viable agriculture: farmland preservation; economic viability; agricultural infrastructure; and community support. As SPF has championed each of these concerns, it has joined forces with other agricultural organizations to achieve success.

Protection Led to Preservation
In the late 1970’s, responding to persistent persuasion by area farmers and others intent on protecting the agricultural base, Skagit County established a 40-acre minimum lot size for farmland in 1979. After the 1989 rezoning attempt, the newly formed SPF joined with others to build on the efforts to shore up farmland preservation through the newly enacted State Growth Management Act (GMA). SPF also worked hard to bring the message to the public at large.

The success of that public education was made clear when SPF co-sponsored a 1996 survey of registered voters in Skagit County. The survey showed strong public support for farmland preservation. So strong, in fact, that late in 1996 Skagit County established a mechanism to fund the effort.

Conservation Futures Property Tax
In 1971, the Washington State Legislature granted counties the authority to levy a fixed and dedicated portion of property tax for specific types of land preservation. The scope of that authority and the will of the people as evidenced in the 1996 survey prompted Skagit County to levy its own Conservation Futures Property Tax “for the purpose of acquisition of future development rights for preservation purposes,” (County Ordinance No. 16380). Along with provisions for how the fund should be used, the ordinance set up the structure of an advisory board.

Conservation Futures Advisory Committee (CFAC)
From its inception, CFAC has included a representative from each County Commissioner District, a citizen-at-large member, and a representative each from SPF, Skagit Land Trust and the Skagit Conservation District. Early on, the involvement of land trusts (SPF and Skagit Land Trust) was considered vital to the proper deployment of the Conservation Futures Fund. In its initial recommendations to the Board of County Commissioners, CFAC said, “The County cannot do it alone; its program will be strengthened while working in partnership with local land trusts.” The report went on to say, “While the County with its taxing authority has a unique role to play, the land trusts may be more successful at some other functions such as private fund-raising, educating farmers about the program, promoting the gifting of development rights, and monitoring conservation easements.”

Farmland Legacy Program

The Skagit County Farmland Legacy Program (FLP) officially launched in 1997 following recommendations of the CFAC. The program is, according to their website, “a County initiative that purchases agricultural easements on Skagit farmland, and works to support policies, programs, and plans that enhance the protection of farmland. Funding comes from the Conservation Futures Tax and is often leveraged with federal and state grants and private donations.”

In the 22 years since the FLP began, SPF has maintained close ties with the County using our platform to educate, applaud, and fund farmland preservation. According to the FLP’s 2017 Annual Report, over 11,000 acres had been protected and more than 1,100 acres were in the queue awaiting processing and funding. SPF has had a role to play in a number of these transactions, often being able to advise and guide landowners, raise funds for specific acquisitions, and constantly work to keep our membership and the public engaged and informed.

The Intersection of Public and Private Interests
While SPF is a purely private non-profit with a clearly defined mission, its contribution to Skagit County farmland preservation is the result of good faith collaboration between public and private interests. We have a unique voice, sometimes acting as a lightning rod, sometimes as a bridge, but always as a willing convener/collaborator for anyone working to preserve our remarkable Skagit agriculture.