King County voters approve a $50 million Farmland Preservation bond on November 6, 1979.

  • By Alyssa Burrows
  • Posted 1/02/2003
  • Essay 4112
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On November 6, 1979, King County voters approve a $50 million Farmland Preservation bond to buy and preserve farmland and open-space in King County. It is considered a historic vote -- the first time in the nation voters vote to tax themselves to pay for preservation of farmland and open space.

The Program to Preserve Farmland

In this voluntary program, landowners agree to donate or sell the development rights of their property to the County. The price of development rights is the difference between the value of the land and its assessed potential value as a residential or commercial development site.

Under this arrangement with the County, property owners agree to limit the number of residences on the property, to subdivide only to a minimum lot size, and to keep 95 percent of the land open or in agricultural use. Owners must refrain from any activity -- such as dumping or processing waste, installing underground pipelines, or mining -- that would impair the land's agricultural capability.

King County planned to buy the development rights to 12,000 acres of farmland with the proceeds from this measure, appealing to property owners on Vashon Island and in the Sammamish, Snoqualmie, and Green River valleys.

Success on the Third Try

A $35 million bond measure for farmland and open-space conservation failed at the polls in November 1978, falling 678 votes short of the 60 percent margin of approval it needed to pass. A reorganized, more costly farmlands proposal offered to voters in September 1979 got 77 percent approval, but also failed to pass because too few voters had cast ballots on the measure.

The Farmland Preservation bond passed in 1979 with 181,872 votes for and 104,138 against, with only about 50 percent of registered King County voters participating in the election. As of 2002, development rights for 12,800 acres have been sold or donated to King County.

A Pacesetting Step for the Nation

"It's a pacesetting step for the nation," said Jim Ellis, the Seattle lawyer who worked on Forward Thrust in 1968 and co-chaired the Farmland campaign with Paul Schell (1937-2014). Paul Schell added, "We are sending a message to the state and federal government people that we do care about our quality of life and we are willing to spend our own money to preserve it."

County Executive John Spellman called this approval "a significant national landmark. It is the first time the people of any state or community have done something to stop the constant loss of farmlands and open-space."

The New York jurisdiction of Suffolk County started the nation's first county-organized Farmland Preservation program, but bond issue there was passed by the Suffolk County Board of Commissioners rather than by voters in a general election.


Paul O'Connor, "Historic Triumph for the Farm Measure," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 7, 1979, p. A-5; "Complete Unofficial King County Election Returns," Ibid., November 8, 1979, p. A-5; "45 Percent Went To The Polls," Ibid., November 8, 1979, p. A-5; Alex MacLeod, "Farmland-preservation Bonds OK'd on Third Try," The Seattle Times, November 7, 1979, p. 16; Farmland Preservation Program(

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