Washington – SKAGIT COUNTY
Countywide program – Formed in 1997 – researched by Don Stuart
OVERVIEW – Skagit County’s Farmland Legacy Program ranks second among agricultural easement programs in Washington state in the number of acres acquired, following only King County. With 73,000 acres cultivated in a water-rich coastal area, Skagit is one of the state’s leading agricultural counties. The county lies along Interstate 5, halfway between two powerful urban economies-Vancouver, British Columbia, to the north and the Seattle metropolitan area to the south. Residential areas of the county are within a one-hour commute from downtown Seattle; most of the highly productive agricultural lands are near the interstate. A key feature of Skagit’s easement program is a market-based formula that establishes the prices paid for easements as an alternative to appraisals. Easement acquisition funds are primarily generated from local taxes since there are no state government funds In Washington for this purpose.
EASEMENT ACTIVITY – 2,500 agricultural acres in 39 transactions. Easements cover a variety of crops and dairy farms. Average easement size is 64 acres.
Goals: No specific program goals, but a general objective of protecting a critical mass of agricultural lands.
Other Easement Programs: Two private land trusts acquire easements. The Skagit Land Trust holds 1,615 acres in 35 easements, mostly protected for non-agricultural values. Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland holds about 2,000 acres of agricultural easements in the county.
Total Agricultural Easements in County: Approximately 4,500 acres.
Acquisition Spending to Date: $2.25 million
Revenues: Annual revenues from property taxes (a local option tax known as Conservation Futures) come to just over $500,000. Additional funds for acquisitions have come from grants and federal matching funds.
Other Arrangements: The Skagit County Commission is currently considering issuing bonds to accelerate the pace of acquisitions and thus take advantage of current property values and federal funding.
GOVERNANCE – This program is managed as a separate department of county government. The director reports directly to the elected governing body, the Skagit County Commission.
STAFF AND OPERATING BUDGET – The single staff person is supported by an annual budget of about $152,000.
ORIGINS – The program was originally promoted by a citizens group-Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland-which sponsored a public opinion survey. Funding was established by the County Commissioners in late 1996 with the adoption of the Conservation Futures Tax-a property tax measure. The full program was approved in late 1997. A study commission appointed by the commissioners created the detailed operating plan for the program. The first easements were acquired in late 1998.
ACQUISITION PROCESS AND STRATEGY – Applications are reviewed and ranked by a Conservation Futures Program Advisory Board, with final decisions made by the Board of County Commissioners. Parcels are ranked to establish purchase priorities.
Rating of Parcels: Quantitative. The priority system assigns points based upon farmland quality, threat of conversion, scenic and environmental values and financial considerations. A second, separate ranking system that is market-based is used to establish prices, but does not require land appraisals.
Other Criteria: Only properties located within the Agricultural and Natural Resources zones are eligible for easement funding.
CONNECTIONS TO LOCAL PLANNING AND LAND USE POLICIES – While the Skagit easement program is independent of the county’s Planning Department, the two departments interact on a number of easement-related issues including building permit applications by landowners of restricted properties. The Planning Department also is represented ex-officio on the program’s advisory board.
Zoning: Agricultural/Natural Resource zoning is one unit to 40 acres (1:40). Only properties located within this zone are eligible for the easement program.
2000 Population: 102,979
1990-2000 Population Change: +23,434 residents; +29 percent
93,500 acres: 70 percent cropland
Conversion to Urban Use: Comparative conversion data not available.
OTHER AGRICULTURAL CHARACTERISTICS
1997 Market Value: $171 million Number of Farms: 714
Principal Commodities: Dairy products, nursery and greenhouse, vegetables, sweet corn, melons
MAP NARRATIVE – EASEMENT GEOGRAPHY (PROGRAM MAP)
The easements in Skagit’s Farmland Legacy Program are concentrated in the heavily agricultural western part of the county. In this area easements are largely dispersed, with a few clusters. Most of the acquisitions are located within a short driving time from Interstate 5, the major north-south freeway that connects the county to Seattle.