King County's Farmland Preservation Program protects farmland and open space in the rapidly developing county by using tax money to buy development rights on farms. It is one of the oldest such programs in the nation and the first to be enacted by public vote. Voters overwhelmingly approved a $50 million bond measure to fund the program in 1979, following two earlier measures that narrowly missed technical requirements despite gaining majority support. Lawsuits and rising interest rates delayed the first purchases of development rights until 1984. Eventually more than 13,000 acres comprising more than 200 farms were protected from development. Not all the preserved land is still actively farmed -- some parcels have been sold as multi-million dollar rural estates. But all remain open space, and many continue to be working farms, some now operated by new, first-time farmers.
Much of King County's growth since World War II has occurred in suburban and rural areas, as subdivisions and shopping malls replaced farms and berry fields. By the late 1970s, 80 percent of the farms that existed in 1945, and half of the farmland available in 1959, had disappeared. As development pressures intensified, county residents and civic leaders sought ways to protect the open space that remained.
In 1977, the King County Council initiated efforts to protect farmland by establishing agricultural districts in areas where farming was concentrated, including the Snoqualmie, Sammamish, and Green River valleys, Vashon Island, and the Enumclaw plateau. The council designated 32,500 acres in those areas as prime agricultural land and imposed a moratorium that temporarily banned subdivision of that land while efforts for permanent preservation were explored.
The following year, King County Executive John Spellman (1926-2018) proposed a $25 million bond issue (soon increased to $35 million) to raise money with which to buy development rights from farmers who agreed to sell them. Although some critics questioned why the county should spend tax money when it could simply restrict the land to agricultural use through zoning, Spellman and other proponents argued that historically zoning restrictions had failed to protect farms, in part because zoning is subject to change as development pressures increase. Additionally, supporters argued, farmers should not be deprived of the right to profit from the increasing value of their land.
Campaigning for Preservation
Voters in the November 1978 election strongly favored the $35 million farmland bond, but it fell several hundred votes short of the 60 percent margin required to approve bond measures. In 1979, the Farmlands and Open Space committee, chaired by James Ellis (b. 1921) -- who had spearheaded the creation of Metro in the 1950s and the Forward Thrust bonds in the 1960s -- tried again with a new, $50 million farmland bond measure.
The committee, which included farmers, preservationists, and developers, proposed that the bond money be used to purchase development rights to some of the areas designated as prime agricultural lands. With the county owning development rights, buildings and pavement would be limited to 5 percent of the protected land, with no more than one house per 10 to 35 acres, ensuring that most of the land remained open and available for farming.
The County Council voted in June 1979 to put the bond measure on the September primary election ballot. Ellis and other backers had asked for the primary date, believing that the measure would be more likely to garner the needed 60 percent approval. They were right -- 77 percent of those voting approved the bonds. Unfortunately, the total votes cast on the measure fell just short of the number needed (40 percent of those who had voted in the last general election) to validate the bonds. Led by councilmember Bernice Stern, a strong supporter of the farmland proposal, the County Council made the decision to put the bond measure back on the November ballot for a third try.
One of the leading campaigners for the farmland preservation measure was Snoqualmie Valley dairy farmer Scott Wallace, who had been a County Commissioner in the 1960s. Wallace had lost his Commissioner's seat to newcomer John Spellman, but the two became allies on preserving farmland, and Wallace helped convince other farmers to support Spellman's development rights purchase plan.
Third Try is the Charm
On November 6, 1979, the Farmland Preservation bond passed with 181,872 votes for and 104,138 against. Both the approval margin (63.6 percent) and the turnout were sufficient this time and the measure became law. Backers noted that the vote was historic. Although Suffolk County, New York, had earlier adopted a similar program, there the county commissioners, not the general public, made the decision. Spellman called the King County vote 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" (O'Connor).
The victory was all the sweeter because it followed the two near misses, and because it came in the same election that voters in King County and across the state overwhelmingly approved Initiative 62, imposing limits on state spending. Ellis said:
"It took a lot of hanging in by a lot of dedicated people, but we made it, and it was worth the struggle ... Just look at what happened. While voters were saying 'yes' to limiting state spending, they turned right around and voted to increase their taxes to save our farmland. I think it says something profoundly positive about the voters in King County" (MacLeod).
Although Spellman said after the vote, "We don't intend to waste any time getting started" (MacLeod), multiple lawsuits and rising interest rates delayed the Farmland Preservation Program long enough that Spellman had left the executive's office for the governor's mansion, and nearly completed his gubernatorial term, before the first farm-development rights were purchased under his successor as executive, Randy Revelle.
The first lawsuit, challenging the constitutionality of the farmland program, was filed even before the election. The state Supreme Court held in 1980 that the program was constitutional, but ruled that the interest on the bonds could not exceed the 8 percent in effect at the time of the 1979 vote. This made it difficult to find buyers for the bonds, since interest rates rose rapidly in the inflationary, stagnating economy of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
After another lawsuit, the County Council sold $15 million in councilmanic bonds, which generated cash used to purchase prime "priority one" farmland in the Sammamish and Green River valleys and on Vashon Island. The first purchases of development rights, protecting 2,100 acres from development, were made in 1984.
Finally, in 1985, the Supreme Court resolved yet another lawsuit in favor of the county, authorizing it to use short term bonds, and to average interest rates, in order to meet the 8 percent interest limitation. This cleared the way for issuance of the remaining $35 million in bonds to fully fund the program, allowing the purchase of "priority two" land in the Snoqualmie Valley and on the Enumclaw plateau. The local bonds were supplemented by grants from the United States Department of Agriculture Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program, which added nearly $1.4 million more to the King County program.
Making a Difference
The Farmland Preservation Program's last major purchase came in December 1986, when the County paid $1.5 million for development rights to the Magnolia Dairy in Bothell. In total, the program has protected over 13,000 acres on more than 200 farms from future development, and occasional development-rights purchases are still made. The program did not stop the loss of farmland and open space but it has made a noticeable difference. Between 1992 and 1997, only 2 percent of King County farmland was lost, a significantly lower rate of loss than in Snohomish County (18 percent) or Pierce County (13 percent).
The farmland program also brought new people into farming by making family farms available close to major urban markets. Although some critics had warned that farmers who sold development rights to their land would not be able to sell the farms when they wanted to retire or leave the business, farms in the program have sold readily, often to newcomers who had never farmed before. Judy Taylor and her husband Gary had no farming experience before 1988, when they bought preserved farmland in the Green River Valley where they raised Angora goats and rare sheep. Taylor learned to bale hay, shear sheep and goats, and feed and medicate her herd. Within 10 years she was chairing the county Agriculture Commission.
New farmers helped transform agriculture in the county, introducing different and non-traditional crops. Some raised organic produce for upscale city restaurants or grew flowers, fruit, and vegetables for sale in Pike Place Market on former dairies and ranches. Others produced vegetable and flower seedlings for nurseries and home stores.
Both new and long-time farmers faced challenges as preserved farms increasingly became islands surrounded by sometimes incompatible development. Surface water runoff from adjoining developments flooded farms and washed away valuable topsoil. Increased traffic interfered with movement of farm machinery. In turn, the new residents complained about slow-moving equipment, dust, odors, and other inevitable byproducts of farming.
Farms -- and Mansions
Not all the preserved farms remained in agricultural production. Even with the strict development limits, land prices rose so sharply in some areas that the open land was more valuable as sites for multi-million dollar mansions. Since the Farmland Preservation Program allowed at least one home on 35 acres, preserved farms could legally be divided into large lots and sold to wealthy buyers as rural estates.
Ironically one of the properties that went this route was the historic Snoqualmie Valley Wallace Farms, where early preservation proponent Scott Wallace, and his parents before him, had operated a dairy for years. Scott, like many other dairy owners across the country, was forced out of business by declining dairy prices in the 1990s and the new owners gained permission to divide the 225-acre farm into five building lots. The Magnolia Dairy and other preserved farms were also marketed as new home sites and one farm in the program became a polo club.
Nevertheless, active agricultural operations, including dairies, cattle and horse ranches, and farms producing row crops, berries, hay, silage, flowers, Christmas trees, and turf also thrive on lands protected under the Farmland Preservation Program. Thanks in part to the program, agriculture remains an important industry in King County, generating over $90 million in annual sales. And even the exclusive estates that have supplanted some historic farms help fulfill the goal of keeping land close to King County's growing urban areas green and open.
Although not all who approved the farmland bond in 1979 may have anticipated the ultimate results, campaign head Jim Ellis, looking back on the program 20 years after the vote, expressed satisfaction:
"I never anticipated that anyone was signing in blood that they would be farming forever, but I did want to hold the open space forever" (Dudley, "Preservation Program Reaps").