More than 60 years ago, 150,000 acres of land were actively farmed in Pierce County. Today that number is just under 50,000 acres.
Now county officials are looking at what they can do to stop agricultural lands from shrinking even more.
The County Council commissioned Barney and Worth Inc., a Portland-based consultant firm, to study the county’s agricultural lands. The objective is to determine whether protections in place now are enough to ensure the long-term viability of the farmland.
Findings from the study will be the topic of three open houses this week in Graham, Orting and Gig Harbor.
“The plan is to allow people to give feedback to the consultants based on what they’ve found so far,” said Bill Vetter, County Council performance audit analyst.
The feedback will be added to the final product the consultants provide to the county next month. No immediate changes will be made to county regulations as a result of the study.
Instead, any modifications would come at the county’s next comprehensive plan update in two years.
The county’s existing agricultural protections came under fire during its most recent comprehensive plan update at the end of 2015.
The state requires the county to identify and assign a designation to agricultural lands that have “long-term significance for commercial production of food or other agricultural products,” according to the state Growth Management Act.
The county does this through its agricultural resource land designation.
They’re saving the farmland but they’re not really saving the farmer.
Tim Richter, fourth-generation farmer, EG Richter Family Farms
Areas with the greatest concentrations of designated lands are between Puyallup and Tacoma, the Orting area and between Bonney Lake and Buckley, according to the consultant study.
Over the years the county has modified its designation criteria to better reflect the land it is trying to protect.
Last year, the County Council tried to broaden the criteria because it believed what was in place was better suited for Eastern Washington farms and not the South Sound, said County Councilman Derek Young, D-Gig Harbor.
That didn’t sit well with the public, including junior taxing districts such as fire and school districts worried about a declining tax base if more lands are protected by agricultural restrictions, he said.
The council put the changes on hold and requested the comprehensive study.
Part of the consultants’ work was interviewing stakeholders such as local farm owners and conservation district officials.
One of the people interviewed was Tim Richter of EG Richter Family Farms in the Puyallup Valley. He is the fourth generation on the row-crop farm he operates with his son. They grow lettuce, cabbage, peppers and rhubarb, among other produce.
Richter isn’t sure what to make of the county’s latest attempt to preserve farmland.
“They’re saving the farmland but they’re not really saving the farmer,” he said. “All around us construction is happening. In fact, we lost about 30 acres this year because of construction and all of that.
“They’re a little late.”
Young agrees with Richter that the county’s current agricultural resource land designation “actually doesn’t do much.”
“It really doesn’t have that great of an impact in preserving actual farmland,” Young said. But it’s a state requirement, so the county must do it, he said.
Another way the county can preserve agricultural land is through partnerships with conservation agencies.
The county has a long-term goal to see 6,000 acres of farmland protected over the next decade by removing the land’s development rights.
For this to happen, property owners must voluntarily agree to remove the right to develop their land into something other than agricultural use. The move would ensure its existence as farmland in perpetuity.
Thurston County has protected nearly 2,695 acres of farmland and King County has protected nearly 13,200 acres through similar measures, according to a Barney and Worth Inc report.
For more information about the consultant’s work, or to take an online survey about agricultural lands in Pierce County, visit freshlookatpierceag.org/#.
Protecting farmland open house
Three open houses are planned this week for people to learn about potential ways to protect Pierce County’s commercial agricultural land.
People also will be asked to weigh in on how much farmland should be protected and where. Are changes needed to the current agricultural resource land zoning criteria? And what other steps are needed to save commercially viable farmland?
The open houses will be:
▪ 4:30-6 p.m. at Kapowsin Elementary School, 10412 264th Street E. in Graham
▪ 7-8:30 p.m. at Orting Station, 101 Washington Avenue NW
▪ 5-6:30 p.m. at Gig Harbor City Hall, 3510 Grandview Street
For more information or to take an online survey about agricultural lands in Pierce County, visit freshlookatpierceag.org/#.