Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy stood behind good growth management principles when she vetoed an updated comprehensive land-use plan earlier this month. The plan will be reconsidered by the County Council on Aug. 11.
The plan, as approved by the County Council in June, would have set land-use planning in the county years behind. McCarthy’s veto gives the council a second chance to reconsider last-minute amendments. In addition to addressing McCarthy’s objections, the council should also reconsider protecting irreplaceable farmland in Pierce County.
Twenty years ago, the County Council passed a “jobs-based “ comprehensive plan, its first thoughtful road map for growth and development. Since then the county has spent millions of dollars on Canyon Road and made other infrastructure improvements to the Frederickson area to attract industrial-wage jobs.
Two concerns triggered McCarthy’s veto of the entire plan.
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The adopted plan included an amendment allowing developer John Merriman to build a subdivision that would invite suburban sprawl into an existing Rural Separator zone intended as a buffer area. A council majority did so despite testimony that a state growth management hearings board had rejected a similar amendment in 2009.
The council also amended the Frederickson Community Plan to increase the allowable size of retail stores to create a regional shopping center in an area set aside as an Employment Center.
With Meridian Avenue and its multiple shopping centers just a few miles away, the proposed regional center would crowd the freight transportation corridor with shopping traffic and undermine further development of the employment center for new industrial businesses
Another council mistake McCarthy did not address was voting down a proposal to preserve 31,794 acres of farmland. Like land for industry, farmland also needs protection from ill-suited proposals like the failed Orton Junction proposal for a housing and shopping development near Sumner. Only the Agriculture Resource Lands (ARL) designation and an appeal stopped this loss of prime farm soils.
Farm jobs in Pierce County increased between 2007 and 2012. Now 295 farms employ more than 1,800 farm workers with a total farm payroll of more than $17.4 million in 2012. Unlike industrial development, expanding farming doesn’t require wider roads or extending sewers. Farming needs an ARL designation to protect the county’s high-yield soils.
According to the 2012 Agriculture Census, agriculture production increased by 2,000 acres over the previous five years. In the next 10 years, the county will need 4,000 more acres of farmland to meet demand for food by a population that will grow by 100,000 people.
Protecting farmland, however, is controversial. The trend since 2007 in Pierce County has been to reduce ARL protection. That year the County Council “redefined” its ARL criteria and reduced protection from 31,000 acres to less then 24,000 acres.
The reduction protected only 20 percent of the land being farmed, because the published map included a large portion of forest area near Eatonville which was not farmed. Fixing this error has been the subject of an ongoing discussion between the County Council and the staff ever since. But because any increase would be controversial, it was not until this year’s 20-year review that the council reviewed a proposal.
The county executive took the initiative and proposed designating all of the county’s prime agriculture soils – 65,000 acres – as ARL. By comparison, Snohomish County protects 63,000 acres and King County 42,000 acres.
By the time the county Planning Commission reviewed the proposal the issue was polarized. So the county staff reduced the proposal to 49,000 acres – the current amount of acres being farmed, according to the 2012 agriculture census.
The controversy continued until the final council hearing and vote on July 30. The council chambers overflowed. Farmers spoke, school district people spoke, shoppers from farmers markets spoke – everyone had their say. But the compromise proposal to protect 31,000 was voted down.
Now the county executive’s veto of the entire comprehensive plan creates an opportunity for the council to take another look. These hard decisions can’t be sent to the state hearings board or postponed until after the next council election.
This is an opportunity to vote for increasing jobs in Pierce County – farm jobs and industrial jobs. It’s time to secure the land base to provide locally grown food for future generations.
Kirk Kirkland has represented Tahoma Audubon Society on growth management issues for 20 years. Dick Carkner was an agricultural economist at Washington State University Puyallup for 25 years.