On a recent rainy Wednesday afternoon, Amy Moreno-Sills and I are in one of the greenhouses on her 126-acre farm near Orting.
“I’m going to check for some aphids while we’re at it,” she tells me, inspecting rows of upstart tomato plants.
The fledgling tomatoes, and some peppers next to them, will soon make their way to the fields that Moreno-Sills and her husband, Agustin Moreno, have farmed since last year. The organic vegetables they produce here will eventually find their way to places like the Orting Farmers Market, or will be wholesaled to local outfits like Marlene’s Market, Valley Farms, Terra Organics and Charlie’s Produce.
The couple met on a farm, and doing this work, Moreno-Sills tells me, is “a labor of love.”
“It’s part of my identity,” she says. “I’m not happy when I’m not doing it.”
It’s part of my identity. I’m not happy when I’m not doing it.
Amy Moreno-Sills, talking about farming
That was the case in 2015, when, despite their best efforts, the couple couldn’t find farmland in Pierce County to call their own. Over the decades, farmland in Pierce County has been disappearing. And much of what remains — thanks to extreme development pressure for housing and warehouse space — is too expensive for new farmers to get their hands on.
“There was nothing available, really at any price. You have to move on,” Moreno-Sill recalls of 2015.
She calls access to farmland “the number one problem” for folks like her.
But this farm is different. Dating back more than 100 years, Moreno-Sills and her husband work the land of the historic Reise Farm, producing organic produce and you-pick blueberries on the first farm in Pierce County protected through the transfer of development rights. It’s called TDR.
Admittedly, the process through which the Reise Farm has been protected — in this case, largely through the work of PCC Farmland Trust, which now owns the Reise Farm and leases it to Moreno-Sills and her husband — can sound a bit wonky. But Nicholas Bratton, a policy director at the regional sustainability nonprofit Forterra described it, in layman’s terms, as “a market-driven approach” to protecting farmland throughout the county.
“Before TDR, landowners had two real estate options: keep farming or sell their land outright - often for development,” Bratton said. “This creates a third choice: farmers can now realize some of the value of their property while retaining ownership and continuing to farm. It’s a win for everyone.”
One of the reasons farmland has become so expensive, and thus difficult to acquire, is because of the development rights that are typically attached to it. These rights allow the land’s owner, or a potential developer, to build homes or warehouses where working farms once stood. This drives up the price and sometimes tempts land owners to cash in on the ballooning value of their fields, trading a farm’s agricultural future for a sizable check.
Through a partnership between the county, the city of Tacoma, and based on the policy work of Forterra, what Pierce County’s TDR program utilizes is the sale of just the development rights attached to working farms, preserving the land’s agricultural use. The development rights are purchased, at market rate, removing the possibility that a valuable farm will one day become tract housing, while a conservation easement protects a farm’s future as a farm.
This process allows landowners to profit from the sale of the development rights, while the farmland is permanently protected, and the future price of the land is lowered — making it accessible to farmers like Moreno-Sills.
She calls the program “the only reason we can farm here.”
It didn’t take long for Tony Carino, a member of the family of developers behind the planned Stadium Apartments, near Stadium Thriftway and across the street from the new Rhein Haus Tacoma German restaurant, to see the appeal of the city’s TDR program.
“When I was 20 years old, I had a backpack, and … we were backpacking around Europe,” Carino recalled. “What I was most surprised by … is how you could get on a bus or train in a city that’s hundreds of years old, and you just get a few minutes outside town and it’s still all farm land, compared to us — it’s all this sprawl.”
“That was 34 year ago, and it still stuck,” he said.
Having grown up in the area, Carino understands the importance of preserving local farmland. But, as a developer, he was also in a position to benefit from Tacoma’s TDR program.
On the county level, the sale of development rights is incentivized, allowing developers — like Carino — to purchase them and then trade them in for increases in height or floor area ratio in their projects here in Tacoma. To make it easier on developers, Pierce County — which has a TDR agreement with the city of Tacoma — operates a “bank” where development rights are purchased and stockpiled, creating a one-stop shopping experience for developers. (King and Snohomish counties have similar TDR programs.)
At its most basic, Tacoma and Pierce County’s TDR program, according to Tacoma planner Ian Munce, accomplishes two worthy goals: It preserves farmland in key agricultural areas, ensuring that working farms forever remain working farms, while simultaneously promoting density in the urban core.
Though Tacoma and Pierce County’s efforts to establish a TDR program date back years, to the Great Recession, Carino became the first developer to actually take advantage of it, purchasing the development rights on about 20 acres of the Reise Farm, and trading that in for permission to build taller at his Stadium District project. The transaction allowed for 21 additional units at Carino’s project.
For the size of the project, it really helped the building pencil out much easier.
Tacoma developer Tony Carino
“For the size of the project, it really helped the building pencil out much easier,” Carino told me. “Two or three other developers had (considered building on) the property before us, and they couldn’t make it pencil. (The TDR program) gave us an edge over them.”
“Developers are very risk averse, they don’t want to try something new,” Carino said. “But it was very simple. The city and the county did 90 percent of the legwork.”
While Carino may have been the first Tacoma developer to take advantage of the city’s TDR program, he won’t be the last. A Koz Development project at South 17th and Market streets is also using it for extra density.
“We’ve had conversations with three or four projects that are pretty far along that are interested in doing the same thing,” Munce said.
So far, according to Forterra Conservation Director Jordan Rash, five farms, nearly 500 acres of farmland, have been protected using the county’s TDR program.
“As long as we’re seeing more mixed-use, multi-family buildings, we’re going to see more interest in TDRs,” Munce said. “We’re looking at a 20-year initiative, talking hundreds if not thousands of TDRs, if we can get this program off the ground.”
Back on the fertile land Moreno-Sills farms, the impact of Pierce County’s TDR program is not lost on her.
Gazing out over her 120 acres, hoping for a break in the rain and looking forward to this season’s crops, she’s thankful for the opportunity to be here, thankful for the security the TDR program has provided, and thankful to again be doing what she loves.
“As long as we’re good farmers and good business owners, it’s secure. That’s one of the main reasons we’re able to so heavily invest in startup costs,” she tells me as we walk past a row of peas. “Because we know we have long-term access to this land.”
“I mean, it’s a big deal,” she says.