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VIEWPOINT: PDR: A look at Whatcom County’s program for farmland preservation

Mar 7th, 2016 | Category: Features

Twelve mixed-use farms have currently applied to sell development rights

by Chris Elder

It’s a cold day this winter and I drive on to my heated office. As I pass through Nugents Corner farmworkers have almost finished pruning and tying up raspberry canes. Vegetable producers have already ordered their seeds and many have already planted some. It is harvest season for many of our porcine and bovine companions, while the dairy heifers enjoy their well-lit shelters and steady supply of silage and more. Another season begins for most farms, but not for all of them.

Dave Kreft, NRCS ACEP coordinator (Agricultural Conservation Easement Program), Myrle Foster, owner of Squalicum Ranch who has applied to the PDR program, and Karin Beringer, PDR Program Administrator for Whatcom County, walk the acreage in eastern Bellingham. PHOTO/PDR

Dave Kreft, NRCS ACEP coordinator (Agricultural Conservation Easement Program), Myrle Foster, owner of Squalicum Ranch who has applied to the PDR program, and Karin Beringer, PDR Program Administrator for Whatcom County, walk the acreage in eastern Bellingham. PHOTO/PDR

According to the Agriculture Census from 1954, Whatcom County contained 4,036 farms producing crops on 197,184 acres. Look at the census data from 2012 (the most recent statistics available) and Whatcom County reports 1,072 farms producing crops on 115,831 acres. The numbers aren’t exact but the trend is clear. Over the past 60 years approximately three-quarters of the farm businesses have called it quits and at least 80,000 acres of farmland has been converted to non-agricultural uses.

Given a changing world, many recognize the need for a good plan. County and city governments within Washington State are required to plan under laws such as the Growth Management Act (GMA). The GMA, for the subject matter of this article, essentially states that we must protect our resource lands and clearly identify our urban or concentrated growth areas. These items, plus many more, are contained within our Comprehensive Plan. Whatcom County staff have spent a significant amount of time meeting with advisory committees comprised of Whatcom County residents to discuss and shape a Comprehensive Plan that represents the will of the people and complies with our state mandated requirements. The Comprehensive Plan Update is currently underway. Visit www.whatcomcounty.us for more information.

Whatcom County elected officials and staff have recognized the value of our agricultural economy and farmland for some time. Resolution 2009-040 resolves that 100,000 acres of land remain available for agricultural use as the minimum goal for ensuring a land base necessary to support a viable agriculture industry in the county. Furthermore the Agricultural Strategic Plan, Resolution 2011-023, has identified the tools available to achieve the 100,000 acre minimum. One of the strongest tools is zoning. Zoning dictates the number of houses that can be built per area and the types of uses allowed on a piece of ground. Whatcom County currently has an 87,412 Acre Agriculture Zone that allows for 1 house per 40 acres. This density requirement was developed in order to protect prime farmland for farming and reduce fragmentation of the agricultural landscape.

 

Local numbers

Prime farmland is one of several kinds of important farmland defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It is of major importance in meeting the Nation’s short- and long-range needs for food and fiber. Because the supply of high-quality farmland is limited, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recognizes that responsible levels of government, as well as individuals, should encourage and facilitate the wise use of our Nation’s prime farmland (Soil Survey of Whatcom County Area, Washington, USDA, Soil Conservation Service, 1992). Whatcom County is home to some incredible prime and productive soils. According to Natural Resource Conservation Service, Whatcom County contains approximately 222,000 acres of prime soils and 58,300 acres of soils of statewide importance.

Given an agriculture zone of 87,412 acres and prime soils numbering somewhere near 222,0000 acres, we can quickly see that many more acres of good farmland are located outside of the designated agriculture zone. Many of these acres are actively being farmed without long term protections in place. This means that there is a significant amount of acreage at high risk for conversion to non-agricultural uses. Enter the Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) program, another tool of the Agriculture Strategic Plan. Simply, this program pays farmers to keep farming their land and protect it as such. Don’t subdivide, don’t sell off for development. Protect it.

The PDR program is a voluntary program where property owners of land with prime soils and additional development potential can cash in on that potential and protect their land in perpetuity.  For many farmers and property owners, the land is their retirement plan or their savings account.  The PDR program aims to compensate these individuals for this development potential and still obtain value from their land without having to reduce its agricultural functions.  The end result is the protection of the ground for farmers today and tomorrow. Many farmers reinvest these funds into their farm business and further strengthen our local agricultural economy.

 

Current applicants total 853 acres, 70 development rights

Whatcom County staff (the PDR office includes two part-time positions) are currently working with the owners of 12 different properties that have applied to the PDR Program. Each one of these properties has near 100 percent prime soils, supports a family business, and contributes to our local agriculture economy. The properties represent a mix of farming around the county – conventional, organic, vegetable production, cattle, berries, and dairy.

The County is currently working to purchase the remaining development rights on these properties and permanently protect the land for continued agricultural use. These 12 properties represent a total of 853 acres holding an estimated 70 development rights.  The value of a development right is determined through a two part appraisal. The appraiser valuates the fair market value of a property and valuates the agricultural value of a property. The difference between these two amounts is determined to be the value of the remaining development potential. Based on recent appraisals the average cost to protect an acre of farmland is approximately $4,000. With that average we can estimate that the cost to protect these 853 acres is approximately $3.2 million.

To date, Whatcom County has purchased agricultural conservation easements on 16 different properties permanently protecting 826 acres, taking out 118 development rights. The total cost for purchase of those easements was approximately $5.3 million, with Whatcom County paying $266,100 and the remaining amount paid for with federal funds through the NRCS Farm and Ranchlands Protection Program (the predecessor program to ACEP, Agricultural Conservation Easement Program) and some from the Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office Farmland Preservation Program (RCO WWRP program).

 

Program funding

When the County pursues purchase of an agricultural conservation easement, staff will apply for match funding through the aforementioned federal sources. These funds are then matched with Whatcom County Conservation Futures Fund dollars, upon County Council approval. The amount of funding available through the NRCS  is determined by the Farm Bill and under the current Farm Bill, funds available for purchase of agricultural conservation easements has been reduced by more than 50 percent. This has had a significant impact on the amount of matching funds received by Whatcom County for PDR purchases.

In order to make up for reductions in match funding, County staff have had to pursue matching funds elsewhere. Staff submitted a grant proposal to the Sustainable Whatcom Fund of the Whatcom Community Foundation and received a $200,000 grant for the purchase of agricultural conservation easements. Additionally, the Whatcom Community Foundation has set up a Whatcom County Farmland Preservation Fund. Donations received into this fund will be used solely for the purchase of agricultural conservation easements administered through the County PDR Program. For more information or to donate, visit the webpage at  www.whatcomcf.org/Farmland.

If you value agriculture, the local food system, and the Whatcom County landscape and way of life, please consider supporting farmland protection by donating. We need your support to protect our community values, agricultural landscape, and Whatcom County way of life.

What is the value of farmland?

For more information

Do you own property in R5, R10, or Ag zones?  Is the property actively being farmed or has it been farmed up until recently?  Would you like to see that property farmed by your kids, grandkids, or by some other future farmer?  If you are interested in more information or would like to apply to the PDR program, visit http://www.whatcomcounty.us/573 or call (360) 778-5932 for more information.

Chris Elder is a planner with Whatcom County Planning and Development Services. He has worked as the outreach coordinator for the PDR program for the past two years. Chris also runs a small farm in the South Fork Valley and is a member of the Twin Sisters Market.

(Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series about farmland preseveration, including current programs and ideas, in our northwest corner. A follow-up to the current PDR applications will appear in a future issue. To share information, please contact editor@grownorthwest.com.)

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