A new study from the American Farmland Trust says Whatcom County has lost lots of farmland, largely due to development pressure, but that it’s programs for protecting farmland are better than others in the Puget Sound region.
Overall, the organization gave Whatcom County a 84 out of 130 points. Click here to see the scorecard for Whatcom County.
From the full report, called “Losing Ground: Farmland Protection in the Puget Sound Region”:
On the loss of farmland:
Four counties—Pierce, King, Snohomish, and Whatcom—each lost more than 100,000 acres of farmland between 1950 and 2007, accounting for more than half the farmland loss in the region. According to the data compiled in this study, all four counties have above-average farmland protection programs. However, they also have some of the highest growth rates in the region. It appears that development pressure has simply overwhelmed their farmland protection programs.
On percentage of farmland actually zoned agricultural:
On average, counties in the Puget Sound region designated 51 percent of their farmland in agricultural zones, a surprisingly low percentage . There was wide variability among the counties on this measure, with three counties—Whatcom, Skagit, and Snohomish—as leaders with at least 75 percent of their farmland in agricultural zoning, and several counties having less than 30 percent so designated
On minimum lot sizes in agricultural zones:
Minimum lot sizes range from five to forty acres in agricultural zones, with the majority of farmland in the region zoned in five and ten acre classifications. The division of farms into lots of this size would eliminate many agricultural activities that require large blocks. In addition, parcels of this size are attractive to buyers who want larger rural estates but have no interest in farming. This latter issue is becoming a very significant problem in the central Puget Sound region, where rural estate buyers have driven farmland prices up to the point where many would-be farmers are unable to purchase land.
King County and Whatcom County have done a particularly good job of designating the majority of their agricultural-zoned land in large minimum lot sizes (35 acres for King, 40 acres for Whatcom).
On providing tax breaks for farmland:
Washington’s Current Use Assessment statute allows counties to provide property tax relief to farmers by allowing them to pay taxes on their land’s agricultural value, rather than the value of its “highest and best use” which is generally far greater. These programs are referred to under a variety of names, including open space taxation, current use assessment (CUA), or current use taxation (CUT). These programs can provide very significant tax relief for farmers, making it easier for them to continue farming.
Skagit and Whatcom counties are the front-runners on enrollment rates, with 88 percent and nearly 100 percent of farmlands participating respectively . Most counties have between 50 and 60 percent of their farmlands enrolled in a current use program, and two have enrollment rates of less than 15 percent. This is extremely low for a program that provides very significant benefits to farmers at minimal public cost.