Politics & Government

Pierce council rejects changes to county farmland zoning

Homes grow near an old barn in rural farmland on Beckett Lane SW in Ortingin 2003. The Pierce County Council left the county’s agricultural land stock at 22,951 acres, though a study found about 50,000 acres are actively farmed.
Homes grow near an old barn in rural farmland on Beckett Lane SW in Ortingin 2003. The Pierce County Council left the county’s agricultural land stock at 22,951 acres, though a study found about 50,000 acres are actively farmed. Staff file, 2003

A proposal to reclassify and preserve Pierce County farmland died in County Council chambers this week, much as it died two years ago.

One key difference in Wednesday’s version of the demise was a number: $230,000, the price of a county-commissioned study of “Agricultural Resource Land.”

The study recommended changes to the county’s current designated ARL stock, including the correction of a longstanding mapping error and the reclassification of 942 land parcels that didn’t meet the definition of commercial farmland.

In the end, none of it mattered. After months of debate and public hearings, council members settled for the status quo since 2004, which sets the county’s ARL stock at 22,951 acres, though the study found about 50,000 acres are actively farmed.

“What we have put into county code is wrong, and we know it’s wrong,” said Councilman Rick Talbert. “But we keep doing nothing to it for political reasons.”

The ARL debate was the centerpiece of the county’s required update to its comprehensive plan, a process state growth management law mandates. Past debates have pitted preservationists against property rights activists, and this year was no exception.

A last-minute compromise amendment offered by Councilman Derek Young would have adopted the recommendations of the county’s “Fresh Look” study, and divided the county’s ARLs into four compass-based quadrants while preserving roughly 22,392 acres of land.

The amendment, the subject of the biggest debate of the day, failed on a 4-3 vote.

Councilman Jim McCune said he wasn’t voting against saving farmland — “We all love farms and farmers,” he said — but said he didn’t like the study because farmers weren’t involved in it.

“I believe the best way to do this is leave it the way it is and have a long look,” McCune said.

Council Chairman Doug Richardson said continuing disagreements over the results of the county study suggested the issue needed more analysis.

During the debate, council members and spectators debated the merits of soils classification: rocky and dry on the Parkland plateau, rich and fertile in the Puyallup Valley. One speaker raised the prospect of “nothing but warehouses between Puyallup and Orting.”

The procession of speakers for and against the proposed amendment didn’t appear to sway the members. Bethel Schools Superintendent Tom Seigel spoke in support of it, as did Art Wang, a former state legislator and past president of the Tahoma Audubon Society.

Then there were people such as Neil Andrews, a Buckley property owner who feared seeing his investment evaporate because of a zoning designation.

“My concern is my ability to develop my land if I wish to in the future,” Andrews said. “I have less than 10 acres, but it appears it may be in jeopardy as to what I can do with it.”

After his amendment failed, Young voted for the broader comprehensive plan update that preserved the status quo, while calling it, “one of the most reluctant yes votes that I’ve cast in elected office.”

Young added that the hold-the-line approach was a county tradition he disliked and warned that legal risks would follow.

“In Pierce County, we’ll let a judge or a hearing examiner deal with it,” he said. “I don’t think we’re done with this issue.”

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