A controversial plan to protect farmland from suburban sprawl brought overflow crowds to the Pierce County Council’s meetings in March.
They know that county farming is a $90 million business supplying local grocers and farmers markets with locally grown produce, berries, eggs and meat.
Farmers prize the county’s rich soils, but the farmland is also in demand to build homes and businesses as Pierce has now become one of the fastest-growing counties in the nation.
Recent reports show that from 2015-16, no county in the U.S. saw a bigger jump in the number of people moving in from other counties.
The crowd that gathered before a County Council committee in March testified about the loss of farmland. A 2016 public opinion poll found 62 percent of county voters shared their concern about the loss of local farms. They said they would vote for an increase in taxes to protect agricultural land.
During the past six years, the council has reviewed three proposals to designate farmland, then rejected each one. This year it hired a consultant to untangle the controversy. It paid $230,000 for a solution that was endorsed by most people who attended the last hearing.
Three conservative council members from rural parts of the county are opposed to protecting farmland. In rejecting the consultant’s solution, this council chose to maintain the old farm map and regulations knowing that it is full of errors.
The map maker mistakenly included golf courses, wetlands, forests and parks. This inflated the total amount of land designated; only 22 percent of the county’s actual farmland would be protected from commercial development under this plan.
The November election introduced the same political disease of polarization that has infected the nation’s capital. In previous years, council members did a remarkable job facing the problems of growth, including the impact on shorelines and housing.
In the past four years, members of the previous council worked together on solutions to countywide problems that avoided partisan politics. Their solutions included suggestions from each party, public testimony and various advisory boards and commissions.
They passed a bipartisan impact fee on new homes that benefits parks, and they supported shoreline protection that prevented fish pens and industrial geoduck farms from locating in waterfront neighborhoods.
This time, when it came to protecting farmland, the council turned a deaf ear. They ignored the fact that decreasing farmland reduces locally grown food and farm jobs, which is one of the county’s major economic sectors.
Over the past five months, people attended a series of public hearings to offer suggestions to the planning commission and land-use advisory boards. The commission voted to increase the amount of protected acres in Puyallup valley to 8,000, some of the most threatened by sprawl and the source of much of the food that we buy in local farmer’s markets.
On April 3, however, the council majority threw out the consultant’s study and walked away from their commitment to fix an error made in 2004.
This is not the time to delay protecting farmland. This is no time for political decision-making when all the information has been studied by experts. Both farmers and the planning commissioners have offered options to bring all sides together.
If no action is taken Tuesday (April 18), we will no longer have the luxury of deciding how to save farmland. We can’t postpone a decision for another decade. The farmland will diminish along with the security of our food source.
This is an unconscionable debt to pass on to our children.
Kirk Kirkland is a Tahoma Audubon Society member who advocates for working farms and preserving wildlife habitat.