The Pierce County Council will vote Tuesday on a proposal that would maintain, for now, the status quo for long-term preservation of agricultural lands in East Pierce County.
The measured approach is in contrast to several drastically different alternatives that sparked months of debate about how much acreage should be classified as Agricultural Resource Lands. The ARL designation is meant to protect “commercially significant” farmland from being paved over by developers for years to come.
Currently, about 23,000 acres are classified as ARL in areas such as Graham, Eatonville, Orting and Roy.
A majority of the land is already being farmed, but some of it is untouched open space. Agricultural uses range from row crops and livestock to large-scale operations such as Wilcox Farms.
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Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy initially wanted to increase the protected acreage from 23,000 acres to about 61,000 acres by eliminating a high-yield production requirement.
“I thought it was reasonable,” McCarthy told The News Tribune last week. “I thought it would serve the county well into the future.”
But the proposal drew opposition from property-rights advocates. It also was criticized by school and fire district officials, who said it would lower property values that affect bond and levy rates that help pay for schools and emergency services.
After those officials rallied opponents, the county’s planning commission recommended slashing the proposed ARL to about 9,700 acres. It also prompted a plan for an independent study to learn exactly how much farmland the county is obligated to protect, said Mike Kruger, senior legislative analyst for the County Council.
The 9,700-acre proposal sparked concern from farmland preservation advocates.
Futurewise, a nonprofit conservation group, rallied for a compromise proposal of 31,000 acres — an idea that was publicly floated but never drafted into a formal proposal.
The months-long back and forth generated much controversy.
Councilman Doug Richardson suggested Tuesday’s final proposal, which buys the council more time and allows the opportunity for more research.
If approved, it would result in no changes to the areas currently designated as ARL. It also would authorize a formal study on farmland protection for consideration in the comprehensive plan amendment period in 2017.
Richardson’s proposal was approved by the council’s Community Development Committee June 15.
The council intends to provide funds through the 2016 budget to study issues related to ARL, the proposal states, including analysis of the local and regional agricultural industry and anticipated long-term trends in local farming.
ARL numbers shouldn’t be decided arbitrarily, Richardson said.
“It was to provide some predictability,” he said of his proposal. “Entertaining all these ideas at the 11th-hour-plus-30-minutes was just getting very, very difficult.”
Fellow Councilman Derek Young doesn’t believe 23,000 ARL acres are enough, but he said he’s glad the council is taking time to get it right.
“That’s not nearly enough,” Young said of the current acreage, “and it’s primarily the reason we’ve lost a lot of farmland in Pierce County.”
He added that Pierce County also shouldn’t rely heavily on “prime soil” criteria for ARL designation, as it has until now, since local farming includes non-soil industries such as livestock operations.
Amy Moreno-Sills, Pierce County outreach and education coordinator for Futurewise, said the more acreage designated as ARL, the better. But she said she’s happy the current proposal won’t forfeit any land protections for now.
“At the very least we didn’t want to lose any acreage,” she said. “Once we lose it, we don’t get it back.”
Still, she stressed this isn’t the end of the story.
“We definitely need more ARL land,” Moreno-Sills said. “We want to get there in a way that’s fair for everyone involved.”
Bethel School District Superintendent Tom Seigel said he supports preservation of farmland. But he had worried about the district’s current and future school sites amid McCarthy’s 61,000-acre ARL plan.
He feared that assessed property value of land within the district would go down, hurting the levy and bond rates and the chances of getting voters in his already “tax-sensitive” Spanaway-based district to approve the measures.
“We know we have to build more schools,” Seigel said.
Kruger said he doubts property values would drop, but the study outlined in Tuesday’s proposal would shed light on the likelihood of those effects.
He noted that Tuesday’s proposal includes exemptions for public agencies such as school districts. If a future school site, for example, was in ARL territory but was part of a county-adopted capital improvement plan, then the property wouldn’t fall under ARL designation.
ARL was created by the Legislature in the early 1990s. During the latter part of that decade, Pierce County officials analyzed how to implement it here.
Nailing down the ARL areas and criteria was a contentious process. The criteria included requirements for farmland such as a certain percentage of prime soil and capacity for high-yield production, among other benchmarks.
Following that process, Kruger said the map was drafted in error. It included some land that didn’t meet the identified ARL criteria.
About three years ago, Kruger said the county worked to fix the problem. That reignited the debate about what the criteria should be and how much acreage should be protected based on those standards. Property owners feared they wouldn’t be allowed to subdivide their properties and that their property values would suffer.
The Pierce County Council delayed the fixes until state-mandated updates to the county’s comprehensive plan were due this year.
Now, a Tuesday deadline lingers.
Seigel, the school district chief, said he’s pleased with the current proposal because it doesn’t restrict more properties and gives the county a chance to collect evidence to pinpoint appropriate ARL acreage and criteria.
“If this is really that important, then take the time to do a study and understand what the heck you’re doing,” he said.
Meanwhile, the county executive said the dialogue must continue, and she’s pleased Tuesday’s proposal wouldn’t eliminate any protected land.
“We have such great, fertile farmland in East Pierce,” McCarthy said. “I think we need to preserve it in perpetuity.”
Learning more about the issue will help do away with misconceptions by opponents who “fan the fire” in the debate, she added.
“I’m still hoping there’s a desire by council members to look at a larger number (of acres),” she said. “Who knows if we have to feed ourselves in the future off of this land?”