King County gets the second-highest grade in a new study on the effectiveness of farmland protection programs in the 12-county Puget Sound region. But there is still room for improvement, according to authors of the report, and the overall news for the Puget Sound is still alarming.
More than 800,000 acres of Puget Sound farmland have disappeared to urban sprawl since 1950, according to “Losing Ground: An Evaluation of County Farmland Protection Programs in the Puget Sound Basin,” the survey conducted by American Farmland Trust. The remaining 600,000 acres remain at risk, the study concludes, mainly to development pressures, and county governments overall get a “passing” grade.
“King, Whatcom, and Skagit Counties lead the region in their efforts to protect farmland and are good models for other Puget Sound communities,” Dennis Canty, Pacific Northwest director of American Farmland Trust, said in a press release. “However, even these counties are overwhelmed by their high rates of growth and continue to lose farmland at an alarming rate.”
King County scored 91 out of 130 possible points in the survey, rating highly for its Farmland Protection Program, a $50 million farmland protection initiative passed by county voters in 1979, and which has protected 13,200 acres of farmland to date. The county also scored well on economic development efforts, through its Agriculture Program (including Puget Sound Fresh), while getting mixed scores on regulation and tax relief.
Here in Woodinville, most of the Sammamish River Valley is protected by the county’s farmland program. and long-time agriculture advocate for protecting the valley’s farmland, said agricultural lands and the history of the land is what defined Woodinville.
“It is the river and the abundance of the land that first sustained the native inhabitants and later the first settlers,” he wrote in an email to Patch. “Without our agricultural lands there would be little definition of Woodinville from our neighboring communities.”
Quigley points out that the surge in wine industry in Woodinville helps educate people on the importance of protecting farmland. “We understand that the agricultural lands of eastern Washington produce the grapes, and so much more. How very fitting that the 'storefront' for so much of that agricultural richness is here [in Woodinville] where the agricultural land has been preserved.”
Protecting farmland is not just a local issue but of universal concern, he added. “People everywhere have a connection to the soils of the earth,” he said. “Take away the soils and we lose our ability to survive. The importance of protecting farmland is not solely a King County challenge, it is a global challenge.”
Other counties surveyed include Clallam (33 points), Island (43), Jefferson (56), Kitsap (29), Mason (36), Pierce (57), San Juan (79), Skagit (102), Snohomish (76), Thurston (56) and Whatcom (84).
Despite the protections in place, the study says King County lost 2,972 acres of farmland to development from 1997 to 2007, and more than 104,000 acres since 1950. About 1,790 farms and 74,000 acres of farmland remain in King County, according to the study, which surveyed numerous governmental sources to create its scorecards.
Canty was quoted as telling Crosscut that Woodinville and Bothell are examples of areas that were once primarily agricultural before losing farmland to development.
“Farmland loss is not just about land,” Canty said in the press release. “It’s about protecting the farmers who hold rural communities together, wildlife habitat, water quality, flood control, and healthy local food grown sustainability by farmers we know. There is too much at stake to allow Puget Sound farmland to continue to fall through the cracks.”
The current economic downturn, which results in less development pressure, is actually an ideal time to strengthen farmland protections, Canty said. The report recommends improvements that include protecting all viable farmland in agricultural zones, increasing minimum lot sizes, and purchasing development rights for critical parcels and blocks of farmland.
Officials from the highest-scoring counties (Skagit, Whatcom, and King) will be presented with awards during their upcoming Board of County Commissioners meetings.