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Wednesday, August 9, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Monroe

Pilot program could be key to saving farmland

Times Snohomish County Bureau

Stopping Tualco Valley farmland from turning into subdivisions will get a boost from a pilot program in which Snohomish County may buy up development rights and promote conservation.

Long has the fertile valley near Monroe been a source of farmland, but the city's rapid growth and its proximity to King County have made it a potential source of new homes.

Farmers in the valley find it hard to ignore development prices, and as family generations change, many sons and daughters no longer want to operate farms. Land-rich farmers say selling to developers can provide a nice inheritance.

But Snohomish County hopes to give valley farmers an option other than selling to developers. If successful, the program will become one of many for preserving sensitive farmland within the county.

Under the Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) program, the county will pay a farmer the difference between the development price for a piece of land and the value of the property if used for agriculture. In return, the county will place a conservation easement on the land, allowing farming to continue and preventing the acreage from being developed.

The county protected 30 acres in the valley last year at a cost of $542,000. Half of the funding came from local sources; the rest was from federal sources.

The county is seeking federal and state money to boost the program. The county, which has applications for preserving about 500 acres of the 3,400 available in the valley, recently accepted a $435,153 grant from the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service.

To meet the match needed, the county has applied for money from the state Interagency Committee for Outdoor Recreation.

If it's received, the county will have more than $850,000 with which to work.

"PDR offers a quick solve," said County Executive Aaron Reardon. "We're on a fast track with the grants, and we need to maximize our efforts to preserve farmland."

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For Al Erickson, whose family owns 182 acres, it could be the key to keeping his land for agriculture. Erickson raises beef cattle on part of the land and leases out much of the rest to several operations that include corn, flowers and organic food crops.

At age 77, he says it's time to decide what to do with the family land. A love of farming means he'd hate to sell it, but if his children, with their own families, aren't interested, then why keep it?

"Developers regularly ask about my land," Erickson said. "But to this point, I haven't done anything with the offers."

Erickson is one of four farmers in the area hoping for a decent offer from the county.

"You're forgoing [future] appreciation for a gain now under the PDR," he said. "But I'm getting later in life, so something has to happen."

For the PDR to protect the valley, the county would need to turn larger landowners into preservationists, and that may not happen under the PDR because of its limited funding.

Meanwhile, a market-based approach being tested near Arlington could be another device to preserve county farmland.

Called the Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) program, it allows developers to purchase conservation easements in exchange for permission to develop in less sensitive areas.

Councilman John Koster, once a farmer, says he supports the market-based approach for countywide preservation over the use of tax dollars for conservation easements.

"If there's no real threat to development, then we don't need to be using tax dollars to purchase easements," he said, acknowledging, however, that Tualco Valley is under threat of being developed. "It should be market-based."

But the TDR, initially worked on in 2001, has taken longer to get under way because it requires involvement from more parties, including real-estate agents and developers.

Mike Pattison of the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties says there's still much to be done in raising awareness of a market-based preservation program.

"It's a new concept and will take time to catch on," he said. "There will be interest in it, but it's going to be slow-going."

That is why Reardon says it's necessary to use county muscle and tax money to make quick purchases until the market-based approach is up and running.

"These are all tools in the toolbox," he said. "Right now, the PDR program works best."

Christopher Schwarzen: 425-783-0577 or cschwarzen@seattletimes.com

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