This is Orca month. As we know from the Water Study forums we have held, there is much to be done to recreate conditions in which Puget Sound Orcas can thrive. The current LWVWA Shorelines Study may be a place to look for actions to improve Orca habitat.
Farmland Preservation has been a topic of interest for the Thurston League for many years. The American Farm Land Trust’s (AFT) “Farms Under Threat: The State of the States” webinar specific to Washington State will be on Friday June 19th at 10 am. You can pre-register for the Washington webinar here or using this link https://farmland.org/farms-under-threat-state-based-webinars/.
The webinars will look at the spatial and policy scorecard findings for WA. They will talk through tools available for planners, land protection practitioners, policymakers, and advocates strengthen and expand agricultural land retention and protection efforts. Could you share this information with folks elsewhere in WA as this is a statewide report (though the tools allow visual analysis at the county level and the indicator of Low-Density residential land use is uniquely identified by county.
These webinars are free and open to anyone with an interest in learning more.
Farms Under Threat is AFT’s multi-year effort to advance solutions for farmland protection. Their researchers used spatial analytical tools to identify exactly where agricultural land has been converted to urban and low-density residential land uses. They examined each state’s policies for protecting farmland and ranchland, promoting agricultural viability, and helping transfer land to the next generation of farmers and ranchers. They created a scorecard for each state. While WA scored high it is still a poor grade as there is much we are not doing, and we are losing farmland rapidly. Many other states are doing even less.
The report authors say that more than 2,000 acres of agricultural land are converted every day—including our most productive, versatile, and resilient land. They found, and this is very relevant to Thurston County, that low-density residential land use is as much of a threat to farmland and ranchland as traditional urban and suburban development.
High Score for Washington
LAND-USE PLANNING – 79 out of 100
Land-use planning policies manage growth and stabilize the land base. Most states delegate planning authority to local governments, but some play a more active role, requiring localities to develop
comprehensive plans, identify agricultural resources, and adopt policies to protect them. Washington requires local comprehensive planning and consistency between state goals and local plans, with
mechanisms to ensure alignment. In Thurston County, however, much of our agricultural land was not included in the protected land category (Long-term Agriculture/Nisqually Agriculture) when designated in 1993. Some farmers on protected land argue that the protection is in name only.
Middle Score for Washington
STATE LEASING – 57 out of 100
State leasing programs make state-owned land available to farmers and ranchers for agriculture. Sometimes their primary purpose is to make land available for agriculture. More often, agricultural use
is secondary to generating income for a public purpose or protecting wildlife habitat. As of 2019, Washington's Department of Natural Resources leases approximately 1,100,000 acres. This may not be relevant in Thurston County.
PROPERTY TAX RELIEF – 42 out of 100
Property tax relief (PTR) programs reduce property taxes paid on agricultural land. The most common approach is use-value assessment (UVA), which assesses farmland and ranchland at its current use
value. Washington administers the Open Space Taxation Act, which requires verification of active agricultural use to be and remain eligible. Penalties may be imposed if land is withdrawn from ag use.
Lower Score for Washington
PURCHASE OF AGRICULTURAL CONSERVATION EASEMENTS – 25 out of 100
Purchase of agricultural conservation easement (PACE) programs permanently protect farmland and ranchland from non-farm development. They compensate landowners who voluntarily place an
agricultural conservation easement on their property. Washington's Recreation and Conservation Office administers the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program, which provides funds to entities such as land trust for the purchase of easements. The funds are subject to biennial legislative appropriations.
AGRICULTURAL DISTRICTS – no points awarded
Agricultural district programs encourage landowners to form special areas to support agriculture. Farmers receive protections and incentives including: limits on annexation, limits on eminent domain,
protection from the siting of public facilities and infrastructure, and tax incentives. One county, Whatcom, includes an agricultural district concept in its comprehensive plan for ag land not under the special agriculture land use category.
FARM LINK – no points awarded
Farm Link programs connect land seekers with landowners who want their land to stay in agriculture. Administered by public or private entities, they offer a range of services and resources, from online real
estate postings to technical assistance, trainings, and educational resources. AFT only included publicly supported programs. Washington has several farm link programs offered by NGOs including in the south sound region.
The study found that low-density residential land use is as much of a threat to farmland and ranchland as traditional urban and suburban development. This is significant for Thurston County as much of our land is in low-density residential use (LDR in the study.)
The webinars will look at the spatial and policy scorecard findings for WA. They will talk through tools available for planners, land protection practitioners, policymakers, and advocates strengthen and expand agricultural land retention and protection efforts.
This webinar is free and open to anyone with an interest in learning more.
My initial takeaways for Thurston County from the published reports and maps– two opportunities to improve farmland protections and confirmation that pasture land predominates the farmland in the county:
- Opportunity 1 – create an Agricultural District Program: Thurston County could add Ag District. About one-third of the states use both zoning to protect their most valuable farmland and create Agricultural Districts to protect other farmland. Thurston County uses zoning to protect a subset of our most valuable farmland – Long-Term Ag/Nisqually Ag Land.
- Opportunity 2- Find ways to protect farms that are in Low-Density Residential (LDR) areas: This land use category has never been mapped before so it has not been on people’s minds for conservation of this land. In Washington State, agricultural land that was in LDR areas in 2001 was 70 times more likely to be developed by 2016. In the map below the LDR land in Thurston County is in orange. It is found mixed in the urban areas and next to the light and dark green pasture and cropland. There is probably a relationship between Thurston County’s common use of the zoning category Rural Residential one dwelling per five acre (RR 1/5) and the LDR land.
- Land use mix: A useful map confirms that most Thurston County farmland is used as pasture (lighter green). Cropland which includes row crops, hay and horticulture (dark green) is much less common and scattered throughout the county. By contrast, much of the farmland along the Chehalis River in Grays Harbor County is cropland. It is hard to see the black woodlands mixed in with the green land, but it is there. The 2017 USDA Farm Census reported 27% of farm acreage was in woodlands (defined as wood lots on farms as opposed to forest land which is common in the county and separate from land that is farmed.)