Paying landowners to protect Puget Sound
Everybody, it seems, wants to save Andrew Albert's farm. The 90 acres of green hay fields and barns near Arlington hug the Stillaguamish...
Seattle Times environment reporter
Failing our Sound
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- Would you pay more to protect Puget Sound?
- Are we striking the right balance between protecting the Sound and making room for growth?
- Saving Puget Sound... again
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Everybody, it seems, wants to save Andrew Albert's farm.
The 90 acres of green hay fields and barns near Arlington hug the Stillaguamish River, which, with some restoration, could be home to abundant salmon and clean water running into Puget Sound. The fields are a picturesque contrast to the sprawl of houses rising nearby. Horse owners line up to buy hay fresh from Albert's fields.
So a few years ago, local politicians hit on an idea to keep Albert's farm and others in this valley from turning into subdivisions: Get developers to pay Albert money to never build on his land. In return, the developers would get to build more houses elsewhere.
As scientists, politicians and the public look for ways to save Puget Sound and yet house millions more people in Western Washington, many are pointing to the strategy, known as "transfer of development rights," or simply TDR, as one of the more promising.
TDRs, they say, offer a way to use capitalism to help the environment — without layering on more rules and regulations. If successful, they could help shelter important land while channeling growth into less ecologically valuable places. And that's something decades of good intentions and land-use laws haven't completely accomplished.
Yet for all its promise, the results have yet to be realized. To the south, Pierce County is one of the furthest ahead, with a new plan proponents say is the best yet.
But what's happening around Albert's little farm near Arlington tells a story of how development pressure makes protecting Puget Sound a monumental task.
"I think it's an awesome idea, but from what I've seen, to me it just looks like a political thing," said Andrew Albert, 25, who is the third generation of Alberts to work his land. "I just don't see it happening."
Driving into Arlington from the west on Highway 530, a billboard greets motorists from the front yard of an aging farmhouse. "Eagle Tree Farm Since 1938 Property for Sale in 2008."
In the distance, mini-mansions rise on former farm fields. A little farther up the road, a sign advertises lots for sale on what was once a dairy.
Mayor Margaret Larson fears Arlington's front porch is turning into a classic example of sprawl. So using TDRs to protect 2,500 acres of farmland is one of her top priorities.
On paper, the arrangement looks like the clichéd "win-win" that politicians crave.
Farmers get paid extra to keep farming. Developers buy credits to build more houses where they otherwise couldn't — in this case on 300 acres away from the river on Arlington's eastern edge. Valuable land is saved from pavement. And government doesn't spend tax money to buy up land or impose environmental restrictions.
But two years after the program started, no developer has bought a single credit.
Money at root
Much of the problem comes down to money.
Farmers want to make as much as they can selling their credits. Developers want to pay as little as possible. And so far, there hasn't been enough pressure to force them to agree on a price.
Both sides say that government intervention hasn't helped.
In 2006, Snohomish County paid the family of one farmer, Orin Barlond, $2.1 million to save 71 acres from development. Some local farmers and developers say the county overpaid, and in the process it drove up the price that other farmers now expect to receive.
"We basically got the same answer from everybody: 'Pay us what the county paid Orin, and we'd be happy to sell to you,' " said Noel Higa, whose Arlington development company, Ronin Northwest, has options to buy much of the 300 acres where the city wants to steer development.
Higa says the price is too high.
But Albert, the farmer, says there are other issues. For one, the county makes it too easy for developers to build on farmland, so there's no incentive for builders to stray from their well-worn development path and buy up the credits.
"To me, the only way it's going to work is if the county puts its foot down and says, 'The only way you're going to develop in these areas is if you buy these TDRs,' " Albert said. "Until you do that, it's not going to happen."
Developers bristle at such a suggestion.
"With us, that's dead on arrival," said Mike Pattison, of the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties.
A testing ground
Gene Duvernoy, president of the Cascade Land Conservancy, a Seattle nonprofit that orchestrates land-preservation deals, is one of the biggest promoters of TDRs. But he is quick to acknowledge the limitations.
Some land around Puget Sound has been protected with these deals. But they have involved time-consuming and intricate arrangements, each unique to their own chunks of land. That gets in the way of TDRs being widely used, Duvernoy said.
In addition, it's hard to find cities willing to take on the extra housing density that comes with the credits.
But if the goal is saving Puget Sound, "we need to learn how to develop differently," Duvernoy said. "It's really hard. It's hard for the developers. It's hard for the banks. It's hard for government."
For now, Duvernoy is looking to Pierce County as a testing ground for a new, improved version of TDRs. The County Council recently approved a program that puts more pressure on developers to take part.
If people want to build extra houses in parts of the county near cities, they will need to buy development credits from rural Pierce County land to do it. Until now, a builder could apply to add more homes without buying any credits.
"If it was strictly voluntary, would you buy those rights if you were that landowner?" said Jeremy Eckert, head of the conservancy's TDR initiative.
Even though environmentalists often feud with farmers over turning farmland into salmon habitat, there's a growing appreciation that hay fields are better for the Sound than housing tracts.
The Stillaguamish River, damaged from years of logging in its upper reaches and dikes that hem in its lower sections, is still considered a good candidate for restoration.
The Nature Conservancy owns 4,100 acres at the river's mouth, and plans to remove dikes to turn farmland back into marsh. The Stillaguamish Tribe and government agencies have worked with farmers to fence livestock from streams, restore wetlands and plant trees along the river and creeks.
"If you let these big chunks of rural lands go, you won't have those options," said Bill Blake, Arlington's assistant director of community development, and co-chair of the Stillaguamish watershed council.
"Once it goes, it goes. You're not going to get it back."
When Blake drives down a paved road that was once a field crossed by Portage Creek, he thinks of the coho salmon he has seen spawn there. Now he looks at a row of new homes rising near the banks.
"A lot of people are going to have pets, and a black Lab will love to play with a spawning salmon," he said.
John Lombard, an environmental consultant and author of "Saving Puget Sound," agrees the TDR strategy could help steer growth away from places like this. But it can't replace strong land-use laws, he says. And he questions how big TDRs could really get, given all the problems.
People need to recognize that depending on where they live, their land can play different roles shaping Puget Sound's future, he argues. City dwellers need to accept more density and expect to pay rural property owners for giving up their chance to cash in on development, he said.
That's something a TDR program can help do, he says. But that won't be enough.
"Ultimately, we need to get to that broader consciousness of all sharing a 16,000-square-mile ecosystem," Lombard said.
In the Stillaguamish Valley, Snohomish County is being keenly watched as it struggles to start a countywide TDR program.
County officials withdrew a proposal earlier this year because some farmers said it would hurt their property values. And developers are lobbying against a mandatory program like Pierce County's.
Unlike some neighbors, Albert isn't itching to sell his family land. He's been hooked on farming since he was a kid. He sat behind the wheel of his father's tractor before he was 10.
Today one of his biggest problems is finding enough land to farm.
Fields that Albert once rented aren't available, partly because they're marked for development. He can't afford to buy more, because land prices are so high.
In theory, the credit program could make farmland more affordable. Once a farmer sells the development rights to the land, the price should drop because it can't be developed.
But Albert's uncle, Max Albert, contends a flawed program will just create the illusion of progress that politicians can trot out at election time. Meanwhile, farmland will keep getting paved.
The way Max Albert sees it, someone is going to have to be forced to give something up.
"It's going to take more political will to make TDR work than we've seen so far from the county."
Warren Cornwall: 206-464-2311 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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