Progress on the Muller Swap status update July 12, 2004
(Note: the "Muller Farm Swap" ordinance was abandoned in 2006.)
The article below addresses two proposals for a swap between county owned property and parts of the Muller farm, owned by Lake Washington Youth Soccer. Since that article was written, there has been progress on this issue in that the proposal to remove Farmland Preservation Program deed restrictions from one of the Muller parcels, referred to as PO2 below, has been dropped "indefinitely." This is a positive development in our efforts to see an agreement which will provide additional sports fields in our area while preserving essential elements of farmland and open space protections as well as the interests of county taxpayers.
Land-use Designations in the Sammamish Valley
Most of the Sammamish Valley that borders the western edge of Hollywood Hill is protected from development because it has been recognized, designated and protected as Agricultural Resource land.
It is a central tenet of the Hollywood Hill Association that the rural character of our neighborhood is closely linked with the continuation of the rural and agricultural designation of the Sammamish Valley. This is why one of our published goals is to defend those agricultural designations.
There are two separate ways by which the Sammamish Valley farmlands are protected. First is King County's Farmland Preservation Program, which also protects farmland in the Snoqualmie Valley, Green River Valley and the Enumclaw Plateau. Second is the designation of the Sammamish Valley's farmland as Agricultural Resource lands in their respective municipality's Comprehensive Plan per the Washington State Growth Management Act.
Since the Sammamish Valley was first cleared of its old growth forest, the primary use in the Valley has been agriculture. Up through the sixties, there was little pressure for any other uses and the small town of Redmond and the smaller town of Woodinville existed largely to serve the local agricultural communities.
Starting in the sixties and accelerating in the seventies, the new phenomenon of suburban sprawl began to appear on the eastside of Lake Washington. While this was perceived as progress to many folks, residents here were also becoming aware of the future downsides of uncontrolled growth, as observed in places like Los Angeles and even the fringes of Seattle, where suburban sprawl had become quite advanced.
Accordingly, public discussion on sprawl quickly came to the conclusion that growth was inevitable and the best that we could do was to plan it, direct it and strive to avoid the worst ravages of unplanned sprawl.
Up to this point, local zoning had been the principal tool for land-use planners. However, local zoning was observed to be ineffective in the long run at preventing urban sprawl and especially at preserving resource lands and green belts.
As a result, in 1979, the citizens of King County voted in favor of the program referred to as the Farmland Preservation Program. This is “an ordinance relating to the acquisition of voluntarily offered interests in farm and open space land in King County.” The Farmland Preservation Program prioritized eligible agricultural lands around the County, issued general obligation bonds funded by King County taxpayers and used the proceeds to purchase the development rights of eligible farms from their owners on a voluntary basis.
Most of the Sammamish Valley lands that are still in agricultural use have had their development rights purchased through the Farmland Preservation Program. The development rights are held by King County in the form of deed restrictions which disallow nonagricultural activities on the participating properties.
While the Farmland Preservation Program has been effective in preserving some of our best remaining agricultural lands from being paved over, it was recognized that the bigger issue of urban sprawl needed direct attention on a region-wide scale. After decades of discussion and debate, in 1989, Washington State enacted the Growth Management Act (GMA).
In a nutshell, what the GMA provides is local land-use planning that is enforceable under Washington State law.
The GMA requires that each municipality create its own Comprehensive Plan as to how it will manage future growth. Hollywood Hill is situated in unincorporated King County, so King County is our local municipality. Each city constitutes a separate municipality, so the City of Woodinville is a municipality separate from King County, as are Redmond, Duvall, Seattle and so forth across the state. While the GMA established standardized criteria for the Comprehensive Plans, it was left up to the local municipalities to decide on their local plans and to administer their plans.
The Sammamish Valley is divided by three distinct municipalities: the City of Woodinville to the north, The City of Redmond on the south end, and Unincorporated King County in the middle. The portion of the Valley that falls within the borders of each of these municipalities is governed by the Comprehensive Plan developed by that municipality.
What makes the GMA such a powerful tool is that, while it leaves the creation of Comprehensive Plans up to the local municipalities, once the plans are in place, they are enforceable under State law. This element is designed to avoid the arbitrary granting of exceptions to local zoning which has proven time and again to be the Achilles Heel of traditional growth planning when it comes to avoiding urban sprawl.
The crafters of the GMA recognized that the lands most susceptible to the pressures of sprawl tend to be our Resource lands. Accordingly, the GMA recognizes three categories of Resource lands, Agriculture, Forest and Mineral, and affords them particular protections. Initial Resource land designation in a Comprehensive Plan is largely left up to the local municipality, but once such land is so designated, the GMA has stringent requirements for rezoning them.
In designating Agriculture Resource lands, a municipality identifies the areas in its Comprehensive Plan. King County designates approximately 3% of the County's surface area as Agricultural Resource. The Sammamish Valley farmlands are part of this. ( King County's designated Agricultural Resource lands essentially overlay the original maps of farmlands eligible for inclusion in the Farmland Preservation Program, though they are separate programs.)
In recognizing an area as Agriculture Resource, a municipality enacts policies that prohibit any new nonagricultural uses of these lands. (It should be noted that there are some preexisting nonagricultural uses within some of these designated areas which are grandfathered uses.)
It is this prohibition on new nonagricultural uses on land zoned as Agriculture Resource, backed up by the Farmland Preservation Program, that has protected the Sammamish Valley farmlands from the high density Urban development that presses it on three sides. And it is the green belt effect of agriculture in the Valley combined with Hollywood Hill's Rural designation in King County's Comprehensive Plan that provide our community with the ability to maintain its pleasant rural character.
Hollywood Hill Association Position on Proposed Muller Farm Ordinances
The Executive is considering sending two ordinances to the Council which would authorize certain actions concerning 60 Acres South owned by King County, and the Muller Farm1 owned by the Lake Washington Youth Soccer Association (LWYSA). Both properties are located in the Sammamish Valley. The proposed ordinances have not been formalized as of this writing. (They are referred to as PO1 and PO2 in this position paper.) The Hollywood Hill Association generally supports PO1. However, PO2, if approved, would have a significant and detrimental impact on both the County Farmland Preservation Program (FPP) and the County’s longstanding policy of preserving the small amount of agricultural land remaining in King County.
PO1 would authorize the transfer of the County owned 60 Acres South property located in the City of Redmond to the LWYSA in exchange for Parcel B of the Muller farm that is located in King County and owned by LWYSA. Parcel B is in the Sammamish Valley Agricultural Production District (APD) and is also in the County’s Farmland Preservation Program.
PO2 would make a finding that Parcel A of the Muller Farm is no longer suitable for agriculture and would also authorize removing Parcel A from the FPP if approved by the voters of King County. Parcel A is located in the City of Redmond directly south of and adjacent to Parcel B.
The following is an outline of the position of the Hollywood Hill Association (HAA) concerning the proposed ordinances.
PO1: The HHA supports a trade of the County owned 60 Acres South parcel and Parcel B of the Muller Farm owned by the LWYSA. However, the HAA believes that Parcel C should be included in the trade.
1. The County should require inclusion of Parcel C as well as Parcel B of the Muller farm in the exchange. Such a condition is warranted because:
This would keep the Muller farm whole. The infrastructure provided by the barn and other structures on Parcel C make the farm work. Without them, a farmer would need to build new facilities, which would cover prime soils, and add significant complication to establishing an operation on the property.
Appraisals of LWYSA’s Parcel B show that it is worth less than King County’s 60 Acres South parcel. Inclusion of Parcel C would make up for this deficit, giving the taxpayers fair remuneration in this exchange. It would also relieve LWYSA of the need to put up cash to make up the difference, allowing more of its resources to go into field development and maintenance.
Parcels A and B are contiguous and are in the FPP. Parcels B and C are within the Sammamish Valley APD. County actions should protect the integrity of the FPP and prioritize promoting agricultural activities on FPP properties and properties within an APD.
2. Such a trade would allow for immediate construction of much needed active recreation facilities proximate to existing LWYSA leased soccer field facilities on 60 Acres North.
The trade would be contingent on securing other acceptable locations for use by the traditional passive use activities accommodated by 60 Acres South.
PO2: The HHA adamantly opposes the proposal to remove parcel A of the Muller farm from the Farmland Preservation Program.
The test required to remove properties from the FPP is stringent. Parcel A does not meet the most basic requirement for removal of a property from the FPP, which stipulates the removal process may be commenced only if the property is clearly unsuitable for agriculture. The bond ordinance that approved funds to acquire development rights under the FPP included this stringent test to address the inevitable requests to remove properties from the program and from agricultural uses. It is the County's obligation to uphold and enforce the requirements of the bond ordinance and the deed restrictions.
Some points supporting our reasoning are:
1. The State Supreme Court held in the Benaroya decision that an owner’s subjective intent and refusal to farm a piece of land is irrelevant in making a determination of its suitability for agriculture. This means that the disallowance of agricultural activity by LWYSA on its property does not demonstrate any unsuitability for agriculture.
2. Parcel A is eminently suitable for agricultural. The soils are some of the best agricultural soils in the country. Agricultural businesses are thriving in the Sammamish Valley.
3. The FPP was never intended to allow individual properties to be removed from the program because the owner chose not to farm the property. This point is reinforced by the Benaroya decision, which holds that in determining whether property is appropriately and legally designated as agriculture under the GMA, the suitability for agricultural uses must be looked at by taking the surrounding area and properties into account. Suitability for agriculture must take into consideration the property in issue in relation to the aggregate. In other words, parcel A is part of the Sammamish Valley with its extremely high value agricultural soils and contiguous to the King County Sammamish Valley APD, where agriculture is thriving. Parcel A’s status cannot be isolated from the reality of the prime agricultural suitability of the Sammamish Valley as a whole.
4. Although parcel A has been rezoned from Agricultural to Urban Recreation by the City of Redmond, agriculture is an allowed use. There are no impediments to farming parcel A other than the refusal of the property owner to use it for agricultural purposes.
5. It would set a very dangerous precedent if the County were to make a determination of agricultural unsuitability on an individual parcel which is in fact clearly suitable for agriculture.
The trade discussed in PO1 (above) provides an equitable exchange which can stand on its own merit.
Perhaps the largest single threat to efforts to preserve agricultural resources is land value inflation. Maintenance of policies which encourage the marketplace to reflect agricultural land valuations is crucial to saving our farms.
Land is valued by what is permitted to be done on it. Any activity other than farming, be it industrial, residential, retail, or even active recreation, can afford to pay more for land than the economics of agriculture can support. Allowing any of these activities on farmland drives local farm land prices above what a farmer can afford to pay and then expect to make a profit by farming it.
The result of expanding allowable uses on farmland is that farming dies in that area. This is why there are such strict limitations on what is permitted on protected farmland, both under the FPP and the Growth Management Act.
As for the laws and policies protecting the small percentage of our county that we have managed to set aside for farming, allowing any non-agricultural development on these farmlands would set legal precedents likely to precipitate a domino effect. And once property is converted to another use, it will never be returned to agriculture.
The principles and requirements of the FPP require the preservation of parcel A for farming. The integrity of the program must be defended if our community is to avoid the loss of these valuable and irreplaceable lands, as demonstrated countless times locally in King County and across our nation.