The Pierce County Council voted Tuesday night to maintain the status quo for long-term preservation of agricultural lands in East Pierce County, despite one final push to increase the amount of protected land from the current 23,000 acres.
The council’s action is meant to buy time so the county can conduct a study regarding how much acreage should be designated Agricultural Resource Lands.
The ARL designation protects “commercially significant” farmland from being paved over by developers for years to come. Settling on the right amount of acreage has been at the center of a monthslong debate between property-rights advocates and conservationists.
The council unanimously approved a collection of final amendments to the county’s comprehensive plan Tuesday, immediately following a series of divided votes on the individual components during a nearly six-hour-long meeting.
The ARL issue will be revisited in 2017, according to the proposal that was originally approved by the Community Development Committee on June 15.
One last attempt to increase the amount of protected land to nearly 31,000 acres was introduced Tuesday by Councilman Rick Talbert.
It would have set aside 9,700 acres, originally recommended by the county’s planning commission, and added it to land that’s already being farmed as part of a property tax-reduction program.
A similar 31,000-acre proposal had been floated during the months-long negotiation process. The council rejected Talbert’s version Tuesday in a 4-3 vote.
Farmland preservationists originally set their eyes on a much larger prize, and they had an ally in Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy. She favored increasing the protected land from 23,000 acres to about 61,000 acres by eliminating a high-yield production requirement for ARL land.
That sparked opposition from landowners, as well as school and fire district officials, who feared the change would negatively impact property values.
That led the planning commission to propose the 9,700-acre option that was denounced by conservation groups, such as the nonprofit Futurewise.
The back-and-forth resulted in an informal compromise to protect 31,000 acres.
Talbert pointed to that ongoing discussion, stressing that his proposal wasn’t new. He also noted that it would still authorize an independent study, which everyone on the council agreed was important.
That study would provide evidence regarding how much farmland the county is obligated to protect and what effects any acreage changes might have on property owners, school and fire districts, and other stakeholders.
“The reality is that this isn’t a radical solution,” Talbert said of his proposal. “It isn’t a solution, actually. It’s a placeholder.”
But a majority of the council agreed that the original 23,000-acre proposal maintaining the status quo was already an adequate placeholder. All of the council’s Republican members — Jim McCune, Joyce McDonald, Doug Richardson and Dan Roach — voted against Talbert’s proposal.
Councilman Derek Young, who favored Talbert’s 31,000-acre option, said the one-time 9,700-acre proposal was “scary” and that even 23,000 acres isn’t enough.
“I view that as a bare minimum,” Young said.
McDonald said she was pleased with Tuesday’s outcome.
“It doesn’t make me embarrassed at all as a supporter of farmers,” she said. “I think we all have the same intent.”
Several members of the public made comments before the council vote, and they, too, were split on the issue.
Carolyn Lake spoke on behalf of property owners, stressing that the “11th-hour-59-minute proposal” wasn’t justified by any solid evidence.
“There are real fiscal consequences to freezing” the use of this land, Lake said.
But Melinda Dauley, of Lilith Moon Farm in Eatonville, doesn’t see the harm. She said the study will buy time, and the more agricultural land set aside in the meantime, the better.
“If you have awareness of the land, you have better stewardship of the land,” Dauley said. “Any missed ag designation opens up farmers to development.”