Attention Pierce County farmers and agricultural land owners: Zoning changes aimed at protecting commercial farmland are coming your way.
Under the proposed changes, some farms could lose an agricultural designation called agricultural resource land, or ARL, while others might pick it up.
The change is largely procedural and not expected to significantly change how property owners can use their land.
“There is a perception that the ARL designation must eliminate property rights because so many people seem to be opposed to it,” said Mike Kruger, senior legislative analyst for the county.
“In Pierce County, it does not significantly change what you can do to your land if you’re outside of the urban growth area.”
Want to build a 5,000-square-foot home on your land? Go for it — the agricultural resource land designation won’t stop you.
50,000 acres actively farmed in Pierce County
Want to subdivide the property and sell it to a developer for a housing development? That’s a no-go — and isn’t allowed under other rural zoning either.
So what does the agricultural resource land designation do?
“This is one part of a strategy to protect farming,” said Bill Vetter, performance audit analyst for the county. “Bottom line, this puts us in compliance with state law.”
The state requires counties to identify commercially viable farmland through zoning. Some counties use the designation to enforce stricter land-use regulations to protect the farmland from development.
Historically that has not been done in Pierce County.
The designation has been on the county’s books for more than a decade, but the County Council recently revisited how it is applied after questions arose about whether the designation’s criteria line up with existing farming and agricultural practices.
An independent review of the county’s agricultural zoning showed it did not include some of the county’s most productive farmland.
About 50,000 acres are actively farmed in the county, but only 22,951 acres are covered by the agricultural resource land designation, according to the consulting firm Barney and Worth.
The county hired the firm to review current practices and propose changes based on analysis and input from the agricultural community. Results of the study were presented in September.
The report included recommended changes to the county’s agricultural resource land designation. The changes will be the subject of a county Planning Commission meeting Wednesday, when public comment will be taken.
22,951 acres encompassed by agricultural resource land designation
Commissioners will discuss the changes, weigh public testimony and then forward a recommendation to the County Council’s community development committee to review in early 2017. The committee will send it to the entire council for a vote.
The consultants proposed increasing the number of acres covered by the agricultural zoning. But a result of that change would be a decrease in the total number of properties protected, because most large farm sites are excluded from the designation under the current criteria.
What exists now is a patchwork of protected properties, Vetter said.
To remedy this, the consultants proposed creating four “production districts” that comprise the county’s primary agricultural lands. The districts are:
▪ Bonney Lake and Buckley plateau.
▪ Central and South Pierce County.
▪ Puyallup and Orting Valley.
Criteria specific to each district were proposed to better reflect the county’s varied landscape and rural areas.
Removed from the criteria is a current requirement the land must produce 3.5 tons of grass or legumes per acre — a requirement that prevents many large farm owners from qualifying for the designation.
This is one part of a strategy to protect farming. Bottom line, this puts us in compliance with state law.
Bill Vetter, Pierce County performance audit analyst
Under the proposed changes, land within all the districts must be 10 acres or greater, except in the Central and South district, where the land must be 40 acres or larger. That’s a change from the current 5-acre minimum.
Amy Moreno-Sills owns a farm affected by the regulations. She also heads community outreach and education in Pierce County for Futurewise, a nonprofit focused on preserving wildlife habitat, open spaces, farmland and working forests from sprawl and development.
Moreno-Sills supports some of the consultant recommendations, including the production districts, but said there is still work to be done.
She will ask the county to recognize contiguous ownership instead of looking at property parcel-by-parcel. Under the proposed regulations, “half my field of carrots will be in, and half will be out,” she said.
That wouldn’t be the case if contiguous ownership were applied, she said.
Moreno-Sills also wants an exemption added to the criteria for the Central and South district that relies on minimum acreage to qualify for the designation regardless of an abutting property’s size.
The proposed changes stipulate half of abutting parcels for this district must be larger than 20 acres to qualify. The current requirements is larger than 1 acre.
The recommendations are a starting point for discussion, Vetter said, adding now is the time to for people to tell the county what should stay and what should go.
The Pierce County Planning Commission will review proposed recommendations to modify the agricultural resource land designation at meeting at 6 p.m Wednesday (Jan. 11) in the Pierce County Annex public meeting room, 2401 S. 35th St. in Tacoma.