September 7, 1998
Conflicting land use poses a constant threat
King County's Agricultural Production Districts represent our last, best farmland. Local farmers provide us with the freshest, most wholesome food available, contribute to our local economy and provide beautiful open space. New farmers' enthusiasm is joining with traditional agricultural operations to create something of a renaissance in our farming industry. However, conflicting land use pressures pose a constant threat to agriculture in King County.
On August 14, the Times printed an editorial entitled, "Ground zero in region's land-preservation debate," which described efforts by the Lake Washington Youth Soccer Association to convert a preserved farm to soccer fields.
While the editorial correctly summarized the legal barriers to this conversion of preserved farmland, we must take issue with the editor's conclusion, that in spite of these legal barriers, the land should nevertheless be used for recreation.
Legal Barrier Number One: The zoning code would have to be changed. The Muller property is zoned for agriculture and contains the best soils in the state (contrary to the editor's suggestion that the land is "poor cropland since it was formerly a pasture for milk cows," the soil has only been enhanced by years of cow "fertilization."
Legal Barrier Number Two: The Comprehensive Plan would have to be amended to allow this use in the Agricultural Production Districts. Some County Council members have already attempted to make such a change, but the Growth Management Hearings Board rejected this argument saying that lands which have been designated for agriculture cannot be converted to any nonagricultural use.
Legal Barrier Number Three: The Growth Management Hearings Board decision would have to be over-turned in Superior Court. The Board's decision, which is one of the strongest pro-agricultural decisions handed down since growth management, stated that conversion of agricultural resource lands to non-agricultural uses would "condemn the agricultural resource industry to a slow and inexorable "death by a thousand cuts." That some of those "cuts" might be for worthy causes, be they active recreation or cancer research facilities, is of no consequence when the agricultural resource is gone."
Legal Barrier Number Four: The Benaroya decision would have to be overturned be the US Court of Appeals, or indeed the US Supreme Court. The State Supreme Court held that agricultural designations can and should be made by cities and counties, and cannot be subject to the whims of current landowners.
Legal Barrier Number Five: The Farmland Preservation Program would have to be overturned. The Muller family voluntarily sold their development rights for approximately $400,000 back in the 1980's, under an enormously popular voter-approved program, the Farmland Preservation Bond. In exchange, the Muller's agreed to attach deed restrictions to the property, which would exist in perpetuity, no matter who owned the property in the future, or what jurisdiction the land was in. The deed restricts any land use which would "permanently compact, remove, sterilize, pollute, or otherwise impair the use of the soil for agriculture." It also specifically prohibits "athletic fields."
The soccer association was well aware that in purchasing the Muller farm they were also voluntarily agreeing to live with those deed restrictions.
One of the Farmland Preservation Program's main goals was to hold down the rising cost of land, so that farmers could afford to farm in King County. The Muller farm is an example of the stunning success of the program. The soccer association paid a mere $6,000 per acre for the Muller farm. Consider that only last year the county paid a whopping $53,000 per acre for a nearby A-zoned property in the Sammamish Valley; only that property had its development rights intact. That should give you an idea of what the development rights on the Muller property might be worth today.
The soccer association has benefited financially as a direct result of the property being a preserved farm (a benefit taxpayers intended for a bonafide farmer.) Yet now that the soccer group has reaped that benefit, they intend to destroy the program for everyone else.
In order to bring about the downfall of the Farmland Preservation Program, the soccer association would have to gather 49,678 signatures in order to get an initiative on the ballot. They then would have to get a 60% majority of King County voters to approve the destruction of this popular and successful program. No doubt the campaign to end Farmland Preservation would be packed with rhetoric, pitting active recreation against farming - with a heavy dose of sympathy for all those kids who won't get to play soccer if LWYSA doesn't get their way. Does the Times endorse the destruction of the Farmland Preservation Program for a few soccer fields?
Last spring when the Times published a similar editorial (4-24-97), in favor of the Muller farm being converted to soccer fields, the response from our elected officials was swift and adamant. No way. Yet where is the outcry from our elected officials this year?
This week the King County Council, in executive session and without public notice, suddenly reversed their former position and decided to join with soccer groups in appealing in the Growth Management Hearings Board decision.
When presented with this ongoing threat to the Farmland Preservation Program, are our elected officials afraid they might offend their soccer constituents if they speak in its defense?
Shame on the Lake Washington Youth Soccer Association for pursuing this plan to subvert out agricultural protections. And shame on some of our elected officials for looking the other way.
Judy Taylor, King County Agriculture Commission