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Farmland Preservation: American Farmland Trust in Washington State

July 3, 2013 

Category:  Rural Uses

Farmland Preservation: American Farmland Trust in Washington State

Agricultural lands preservation is an ongoing concern in Washington State and around the U.S. The Puget Sound region has lost 60% of its farmland acreage since 1950 (U.S. Department of Agriculture). This post examines the role of the American Farmland Trust in preserving farmland in Washington State.

Before writing this post, I contacted Dennis Canty, Pacific Northwest Director for the American Farmland Trust (AFT). The AFT is the primary national organization that promotes farmland preservation and healthy farming practices, and supports farms and farmers. MRSC’s webpage on Farmland Preservation Techniques and Sustainable Agriculture includes many links to information provided by the AFT.

The AFT’s Farmland Forever campaign started one year ago with a goal of protecting an additional 100,000 acres of farmland in the Puget Sound area by 2018. In Washington, the focus has been on the Puget Sound area because of higher development pressure to convert farmland to other uses. The Farmland Forever program involves a two-pronged approach: (1) funding for conservation easements on farmland; and (2) improving county planning and zoning for agriculture. The AFT is hoping to preserve an additional 30,000 acres of farmland through conservation easements and to protect 70,000 additional acres of farmland in large lot exclusive agricultural zoning in the next five years.

As part of the Farmland Forever project, the AFT prepared a report in 2012, "Losing Ground, Farmland Protection in the Puget Sound Region," that looks at the twelve counties around Puget Sound. This study addressed the four key ingredients of farmland protection: land use regulation, purchase and transfer of development rights, property tax relief, and economic development. Three counties, Skagit County, King County, and Whatcom County, are recognized for their outstanding programs. In particular, Skagit County’s program combines all four elements of farmland protection, including a dedicated funding source to purchase farmland. In April, the AFT sponsored a conference, Planning for Agriculture in Puget Sound, that brought national and regional experts together with local elected officials, planners, and food system advocates.

Of the four key ingredients of farmland protection, the AFT report recognized land use and zoning regulation as having the most immediate impact. Washington communities are working on updates to their comprehensive plans, and the preservation of agricultural lands will figure strongly in the updates for counties. Updates for King County, Pierce County, and Snohomish County are due in June 2015; the other Puget Sound counties are due in June 2016. Following the April conference, the AFT set up a planners work group to assist county staff and elected officials as they update farmland policies and regulations. The AFT is providing technical assistance through workshops and one-on-one meetings.  For further information on the planners work group, contact Dennis Canty.

The Washington State Conservation and Recreation Office administers a grant program for farmland preservation as part of the larger Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program. This is the principal state source for funding of farmland easements and leases. The easements and leases under this program involve purchasing development rights, which allow farmers to retain ownership of their land and to continue farming while preventing conversion to non-farm uses. During each funding cycle, counties, cities, and nonprofit organizations may apply for these grants, which require a 50% match.

The AFT lobbied strongly for state funding for this program in this legislative session. The adopted 2013-2015 state budget includes $5.3 million for the easements program, enough to fund 14 of the 22 pending projects recommended for funding. In early 2014, applications may be submitted that will be considered for funding in the 2015 legislative session.

As well as advocating for statewide farmland funding for conservation easements, AFT also offers a small grant program in conjunction with the National Fish and Wildlife Service called Pioneers in Conservation. This program provides grants to farmers for environmental restoration. A pilot Pioneers in Conservation grant program is underway this year in the Wenatchee area.

In addition to the purchase of development rights through conservation easements, some agricultural land can be protected using transfer of development rights (TDR). TDR programs allow landowners to transfer the right to develop one parcel of land to a different parcel of land. TDRs are used to shift development from farmland to city property with urban services designated for more intensive development. TDR programs to protect farmland have had limited success across the U.S. and in Washington State. TDRs are complex and require a combination of market demand, willingness to cap urban densities to provide an incentive to make the transfer, and cooperation between cities and counties shifting rights across political boundaries.

According to Dennis Canty, Seattle has established the first major regional TDR program in the state for the South Lake Union area. To achieve bonus densities for taller buildings, developers must pay for development rights from farmland in King County, essentially transferring the right to develop from the farmland to the city property. For more information, see the city of Seattle’s webpage on South Lake Union.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.


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