Guest opinion: Farmland preservation plan worthy of our support

  • Wednesday, November 6, 2019 1:30am
  • Opinion

I’m no fan of taxes or tax increases, and firmly believe government takes too much already. But once in a great while a tax proposal comes along that actually makes sense, carrying with it the promise of tangible benefits for generations to come.

That’s exactly what Clallam County commissioners are considering with an almost negligible nudge in property tax intended to preserve precious farmland, open spaces and public access to water, especially around Sequim.

Some 90 years ago, agriculture in Clallam County thrived on 70,000 acres of farmland. Today that figure is around 17,000 acres, or a bit more 26 square miles, much of that within a short drive from downtown Sequim.

As a kid in the 1970s, I once worked summer jobs in some of those nearby fields – picking strawberries, raspberries, cucumbers and green beans. Today, houses sit atop much of that once-productive land.

What commissioners Mark Ozias and Randy Johnson are proposing is similar to a successful Skagit County program that has preserved 12,000 acres or, closer to home, the efforts by which the highly successful North Olympic Land Trust has protected more than 3,000 acres. Landowners would receive a payment from a newly created conservation futures program but would still own the land and would continue to pay property taxes.

The county would in turn acquire the development rights with the land’s use perpetually restricted to agriculture. County funds could be combined with those of private groups such as the NOLT to add more bang to the buck.

A newly created Conservation Futures Program Advisory Board – consisting of a representative from the Clallam Conservation District, the North Olympic Land Trust, one citizen from each of the three commissioner districts, two citizen-at-large members, and hopefully a tribal member – would oversee the program, which would be evaluated for its effectiveness every 10 years.

The proposal would set a levy of an additional 2.75 cents per every $1,000 of assessed valuation for property owners, which rounds out to $8.25 a year for a home assessed at $300,000. That’s expected to generate $250,000 annually for the program.

When you carefully consider what’s at stake, I call $8.25 a year out of my pocket to help protect farmland and open space a bargain. Because what we’re talking about is preserving the heart and soul of Clallam County’s rural character. Additionally, we can at least partially answer a question that needs to be addressed sooner than later: “How will we feed ourselves?”

The alternative is to do nothing, to hope that non-profits and volunteers can achieve all that needs to be done, and perhaps to watch in frustration while precious farmland disappears under asphalt, tilt-ups and housing developments. Have you been to the Kent, Puyallup and Sumner areas lately?

Over a 20-year span, I saw hundreds of acres of fertile farmland that once grew vegetables needlessly disappear. Housing developments engulfed some of that acreage, the remainder was entombed beneath warehouses and distribution centers to accommodate imported junk from China.

It doesn’t have to be that way here. But as Ozias told the Peninsula Daily News last week, “We have a rapidly closing window in which to try to maintain a viable agricultural community.” The time to act is now.

While I appreciate Commissioner Bill Peach’s concerns with raising property taxes, especially on property owners with fixed incomes, this is not an egregious syphoning away of our money for some specious government giveaway program.

I do agree with Peach’s concerns that funds from this levy could be inappropriately diverted elsewhere in the future. Iron-clad language in the ordinance will be needed to prevent this. I’d also like to see the proposed levy rate permanently capped.

A vital component of the northern Olympic Peninsula’s character, and most certainly Sequim’s charm, is its beautiful, productive farmland, uniquely juxtaposed as nowhere else in this country against the backdrop of the soaring Olympic Mountains, the lush evergreen forests, and the salt water.

What county commissioners are proposing will go a long way toward protecting this resource. The burden is small; the benefit significant.

Paul Schmidt is a 1980 graduate of Sequim High School and a former journalist. He currently works in the railroad industry.

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