Monday, May 18, 2009

Followup on 3 government agencies: Zoning

I've received roughly 100 email messages about this post, and thought I'd make an entry that talked about the most common element. Here's a summary:

"In [insert name of state] we don't have zoning or issues like you've been having. This is why zoning land is evil"

Actually, if there wasn't land use laws in place, the chances of this land being available for me to farm at all would be pretty low. It's relatively close to a city, has good access to highways and if there weren't some zoning protections it'd probably be light industrial storage. Think crane booms and heavy equipment.

I don't really have an argument with the basic concept of zoning. Yes, it does drive up the price of everything -- look at housing prices here vs anywhere with less restrictive zoning. If it were just the base zoning for this land, AG-10 in my case, my operation is entirely consistent. It's zoned farmland, riverbottom commercial farmland, and I'm farming. It's even consistent with Snohomish counties stated goals -- take a look at Focus on Farming.

So the overall zoning isn't really an issue. What is an issue is the impact that an increasingly large body of regulations have that aren't obvious, administered by different agencies with different agendas.

If you measure the animosity of an agency by its conversion of farmland into something else, the department of Ecology stands out in front. I'm going to assume that what the department of ecology puts on their website is what they're proud of, or want to be known by. Let's take a headline from their website: "Transforming Farmland Into Wetland and 725 Jobs, The Chronicle online, Sept. 30, 2008"

Once farmland is converted into anything else, that destruction is likely permanent. Now there's some wiggle room there -- to Ecology, farmland and wetland are identical -- so they can claim there's "no net loss of farmland", but as someone who wants to actually farm, there's very few places where the land is cheap enough to farm and I'm sorry, farmland destroyed and flooded isn't' the same as farmland.

Snohomish county itself rates high as a destroyer of farmland. Let's use the Smith Island restoration project as an example. First, the name sounds pretty good. We're going to restore it. The problem is that "restoration" in this case is the destruction of hundreds of acres of farmland that's been in use since the turn of the century. Biringer farms produces lovely strawberries that I've enjoyed for years. But that's scheduled for destruction. Don't miss the comments on the end of that article.

The port of Everett is doing its part. Here's the breakdown of that project.

All of this activity is happening a mile or two from my farm, on the same river. They're acting as if the farmland they're destroying is a hazardous waste dump site that must be cleaned up, and at any cost, by the way. The total dollars spent on these projects exceeds $60 million.

In review:
* "restoration" projects are providing a market for farmland far in excess of its value as farmland. "Wetland mitigation banks" quote asking prices of $60,000/acre compared to $4,000 an acre for farmland. This huge difference in price means that farmland is being converted to wetlands at every opportunity. Over 663 acres of farmland that has been used to produce local food and produce has been lost in the last 4 years in a series of "cost is no object" projects. The resulting land is then permanently off the tax roles -- in fact, requires maintenance, so the net effect on county and state budgets is a permanent loss.

* Without farmland, farmers cannot farm. What Snohomish county (and the state of Washington) is doing with these and other projects is exporting farming to other counties and states. So much for local food and localvores.

* in areas where farming is "allowed" -- zoning and land use regulations are present that seem to make farming a viable use of the land -- an increasingly dense tangle of regulations make any economic activity difficult. This multiple-agency regulatory bed of nails is something that the average small landowner is ill-equipped to deal with. Snohomish county offers a "farming coordinator" -- who also happens to be the enforcement arm of Snohomish county PDS. If I'm a small farmer who wanted to talk through some issue to see what the options are, I'm disinclined to do that with the very folks who can fine me for that same activity, whatever it is, even if it is allowed.

* the net effect of this punitive approach to land governance is that most of the farmers in this area quietly construct their buildings, fences, manure ponds, and so on out of the eye of local government, which defeats the purpose of the zoning and land use laws and regulations in the first place.

* Farmlands are a useful, vital part of our society. They are large tracts of land that are "low value" -- similar in fact to wetlands. The department of ecology spends a lot of time promoting the value of wetlands and NO time on farmlands. Both are necessary, but so far the emphasis has been on one to the exclusion of the other.

* All of the hundreds of millions of dollars of "mitigation" work has not stopped or even slowed the rate of decline of any measured species. All of this money spent, all of this land destroyed, all of these people drawing a salary and no benefit to the animals and fish that are the ostensible reason for this destruction.

* We don't even know what was there before the dikes anymore.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

At least they haven't come to take away all your pigs.