“Agriculture occupies half of the land mass in the U.S. and we’re losing it a little bit at a time,” says Don Stuart of the American Farmland Trust. “Every year, 23,000 acres of Washington State’s farmland is developed every year.”
We’re multiplying the problem, he adds, because we’re fragmenting agricultural lands. The Trust estimates that the U.S. is loosing farmland at a rate two to three times greater than the rate of its population growth, at the same time the U.S. just moved from a net exporter to a net importer of food.
Stuart spok about the future of agriculture recently at the White Salmon Library. In an odd juxtaposition, on that same day, March 16, the Washington Farm Bureau launched a signature-gathering campaign to put what it has titled the Property Fairness Initiative — Initiative 933 —on the November ballot.
I-933 is a close cousin to Oregon’s Measure 37; both are designed to release property owners from what many consider burdensome land use regulations. Opponenents say I-933 and M-37 are really about developers seeking to blow past land laws that have kept much of the Northwest livable by limiting subdivisions and development projects on farms and forest lands. The Farm Bureau has until July 7 to gather 235,000 signatures to put I-933 on Washington’s November ballot. The initiative would require Washington’s state and local governments to either compensate landowners when land use regulations lower their property’s value, or else waive those regulations, just as Measure 37 has done in Oregon.
“Any regulations adopted since December 31, 1995 that damages or harms the value of your property by restricting how the property can be use would be subject to our initiative,” says Dean Boyer, spokesman for the Washington Farm Bureau. “Farmers are being driven off land by government regulations.”
Boyer gives an example of a government agency requiring a 300-foot buffer on either side of stream. “We’re not out to protect just farmers rights, but all people’s property rights,” he said.
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Boyer says the initiative is not a twin to Oregon’s Measure 37 , which has so roiled Oregon’s politics. Whereas M-37 allows property owners to seek compensation for regulations enacted at any point after they purchased their property, for example, I-933 limits landowners to seeking compensation only for regulations adopted after 1995.
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But the Community Protection Coalition, the No On I-933 Campaign, sees almost identical parallels.
“I-933 creates loopholes for irresponsible development,” say CPC campaign director Aisling Kerins. “It takes away zoning and land use laws that protect communities. It sets up a system that any time local government puts up new laws that affect the use or value of someone’s property, government know the will be forced to chose between paying the owner or exempting them from the regulation.”
Kerins cites a M-37 claim in Polk County, Oregon, for a one million square foot commercial development in the middle of “some of the best farmland,” and other large projects as the initiatives’ harmful effects. She says Oregon governments have not had the money to pay the M-37 claims and that every claim so far resulted in waiving the regulations.
And te group Futurewise (formerly 1000 Friends of Washington) alleges that I-933 is a “radical attack on our protections for clean air, clean water, working farms and thriving, livable communities.” Futurewise calls I-933 the “Developer Initiative,” and says the group opposes it because the initiative would “rollback protections that keep drinking water aquifers free of contamination, and that keep wells from going dry.”
The American Farmland Trust estimates that 75 percent of Washington farms’ have a market value that exceeds their agricultural — meaning the land is more valuable for houses, industry, or shopping centers than for agriculture. That puts pressure on farmers to develop, and to see their property as an investment that will payoff via subdivisions when they’re ready to retire.
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When we lose farms, Stuart says, we also lose the large acreages that provide aquifer recharge, floodwater retention, riparian habitat protection, wildlife migration corridors, and open space as well as the economic benefits. Benefits like having a domestic food source and an industry that pays more in taxes than it receives in services.
The American Farmland Trust would like all levels of government — federal, state, county — to help to keep farmers farming. The Washington Farm Bureau thinks that comes from allowing them to develop their property, or else use it without the weight of government regulations.
The citizens of Washington will get to decide which version looks like the future they want for their state: Does limiting rural development, at the cost of frustrating some land owners, ultimately serve the greatest good? Or do those limits unconstitutionally “damage” a person’s property?