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"Farmers, preservationists find balance"

"For years, Whidbey farmers have insisted that they need to be able to develop part of their lands to keep the rest in production.For years, preservationists have looked for ways to keep farm fields open.Now, a county planning committee thinks it has found a compromise that will keep both sides — and sprawl-leery state officials — happy.The county commissioners are considering a plan that would let the owners of commercially viable farmland develop some of their lands, in exchange for a guarantee that the rest will remain permanently undeveloped. The same plan would give the owners of small parcels — five to 20 acres — the option of asking for agricultural zoning, a move designed to encourage more small farmers.The commissioners will hold a public hearing on the idea at 3 p.m. Monday, Sept. 27, in their meeting room in the basement of the Courthouse Annex. If they approve it, the proposal will become part of the Comprehensive Plan that they will send back to a state appeals board, who will decide whether it passes muster with the state Growth Management Act.The compromise was hammered out by a committee, led by County Commissioner Bill Thorn, that included farmers, a representative from the Property Rights Alliance and a representative from the preservation-minded Island County Growth Management Coalition.The plan would give the owners of commercial farmland the right to 0.2 Earned Development Units for every acre of land they agree to hold open, coalition and committee member John Graham said. The development units could be used for a variety of developments, including houses, guest cottages, small businesses, or bed & breakfast rooms, along with a few other uses that are spelled out in the codes. Landowners would be able to use their units to build on up to 15 percent of their land — as long as it’s not prime farm land — while the rest would remain open. In some cases, the developments might be allowed on one of the property owner's other parcels, if the farm parcel doesn't have enough room, or doesn't fit the criteria. Any developments would have to be clustered and set back from the rural land, Graham said.Farmland included in the Commercial Agriculture zone would get protection for potentially annoying farm practices, including spraying, fertilizing, dust and equipment noise.The zoning would apply only to what the county calls “agricultural land resources of local importance.’’ It’s defined as land that is at least 25 percent composed of prime soils, and is enrolled in the county’s agricultural tax program, which limits property tax assessments on agricultural land.Farms larger than 20 acres that fit the criteria would be automatically covered by the zone, as long as they have a water right and aren’t inside a diking district, county planning consultant Keith Dearborn said. People who own smaller parcels, down to five acres, could also opt in.The basic criteria would cover about 4,680 acres, or 3.5 percent of the county, according to a proposed county code amendment.Dearborn said the extension of the option to smaller farms would probably affect about 60 acres and a handful of owners, at most, the way the county is situated now.Graham, though, said he thinks it may encourage the creation of more small specialty farms, over time, who might want to opt into the zone.“It may be peanuts now,’’ he said. “But conceptually, the shift to include small farms will, 20 years from now, be seen as a visionary move taken here in 1999.’’He and Tom Roehl, a property-rights oriented Freeland planner who is frequently on the opposite side of the political fence, both said they are happy with the compromise.“Mostly, I’m pleased with the effort,’’ Roehl told the commissioners last week. “I’m pleased with the process we went through.’’"

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