Can growth and farming coexist?

Can growth and farming coexist?
SB 5259 aims to streamline permitting processes for farmers who say that red tape is making it harder for them to remain economically sustainable. Photo:

As Washington state’s population grows, agricultural industry advocates say that farmers need more flexibility with their land designated for farming under the Growth Management Act (GMA) in order to remain economically sustainable.

SB 5259 would among other things allow cities and counties to use what are known as “innovative zoning techniques” (IZTs) in and outside urban growth areas (UGAs) and provide ways to streamline permit processes. A substitute version of the bill cleared the Senate Committee on Local Government on Jan. 24 and received a Feb. 12 public hearing in Ways and Means.

At the January public hearing in Local government, Sponsor Sen. Hans Zeiger (R-25) told members that Puyallup farmers in his district “feel as though their livelihood is threatened by encroachments of all kinds; rising costs, growing traffic and density around them, constant regulatory pressure from state and local governments, difficult permitting processes and more.

“We in the legislature and our local governments have recognized the value of farmland,” he added. “But we have done too little to help preserve the viability of farming in areas like mine.”

Bolstering his argument was testimony by Puyallup farmer Timothy Richter, who told committee members “we can’t farm the way we want to. There’s nothing but red tape. It gets so frustrating. I don’t need financial help, but I need help to allow me to do what I need to do.”

Washington Policy Center Director of the Initiative on Agriculture Pam Lewison told Lens that “what we’re seeing is a conversion of good farmland over to low density development, because if you’re in a struggling sector of the ag industry, which is quite frankly all of them, there is significantly more money to be made selling your lands to a developer in the short term than maintaining your farm on a legacy level.”

She added that agriculture is “of the largest industries in the state, and it provides for a very robust economy. Anytime you start cutting acres out of that production cycle, you are ultimately undercutting the state as a whole.”

During the Feb. 12 hearing on the substitute proposal, Jerome O’Leary with the Pierce County Agricultural Advisory Committee read a letter warning that the “limitations and restrictions of the Growth Management Act on agricultural resource land has significant impacts on the actual operations of an agricultural business. Over the years the requirements for the successful operation of an agricultural business have changed greatly.”

The letter noted further that “farmers have had to adapt and change our methods of operation to meet new restrictions, additional regulations, shifts in market conditions, variability in prices and the decrease in needed businesses that support the agricultural industry.”

IZTs can include allowing nonagricultural uses on land designated for agricultural production, while the bill also repeals a requirement that nonagricultural activities on farmland be located within areas already developed for buildings and residential uses. Lewison said that such allowances enable farmers to use sections of their land less suited for crops for other purposes.

Along with the IZTs, the bill would allow counties to enroll in the Voluntary Stewardship Program (VSP) created in 2011; the deadline to opt in was early 2012. That program allows counties to create voluntary, incentive-driven work plans for agricultural lands as an alternative to regulations.

Before the bill cleared Local Government, committee members removed a provision that would have allowed counties and cities to exempt agricultural lands from requirements they deemed “unnecessary.”

No further action is scheduled for the bill.

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