As the Urban Growth Boundary Approaches: A Wary Farmer Notices

Bill Zimmerman (Bi-Zi Farms), a small farmer in Vancouver, Washington talks about the approaching urban growth boundary (UGB) that may soon encompass his farm. Every 5 years the UGB in Washington State is up for review by the county (his is in Clark county), and the UGB line keeps expanding as development pressures, and highest use principles are applied to agricultural lands that lie close to urban areas. As Zimmerman explains, to end up inside the UGB line means tighter regulations, and greater vulnerability to neighbor complaints that can end up putting farms like his out of business.

By definition, land use laws represent an attempt to properly balance a complex mix of competing private and public interests: agriculture versus commercial development, preserving open space lands versus building new homes to accommodate population growth, and zoning for residential versus industrial uses, to name but a few. As Bill Zimmerman explains in the video, it’s difficult for him and his fellow farmers to make longterm investment decisions, in his case, longer than 5 years, because of concerns over being absorbed into the next urban growth boundary designation. Zimmerman points out, although the state of Washington has “right to farm” laws designed to protect farmers from nuisance laws who fall inside the urban boundary, in order to be protected, he would not be not allowed to change his farming operations; adding a larger tractor, or planting a different crop could jeopardize those protections. Imagine a business being told, you are free to remain in business, but you can never change!

Expanding the urban boundary that may one day subsume a working farm, is an important societal decision that demands local community involvement. There will always be trade-offs, perhaps a farm will go out of business, and from the dust a shopping center will arise. That not only means new jobs (possibly more jobs than before) but also (perhaps) greater revenue for the state and county, at least in the short run. For those who may take the longer view, the question one may ask, how important is the future of agriculture to the urban fringe, and the preserving of agricultural-grade lands that reside close to an urban area? What if our community values change in 20 years, but the land has already been commercially developed, will we be able to purchase desirable farmland in a similar location to make up for the lost production capability? How valuable is agricultural land near population centers—who should make the ultimate land use decisions, and over how long a timescale between designation changes?

Good agricultural soils, that is, land that is optimal for growing food, is in relative scarce supply throughout the world, and growing scarcer each passing year. According to The American Farmland Trust, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving agricultural lands, only one-fifth of U.S. land is “high quality”, and we are losing an average of “one-acre of farmland per minute”.

In an uncanny way, Bill Zimmerman’s farm reminds me of the opening line of Virginia Lee Burton’s beloved children’s book (The Little House,) that spoke of time, and the approach of progress from the vantage point of that little house that kept moving closer to the city: “Once upon a time, there was a little house way out in the country”. It would be sad if Bill Zimmerman, and his farm were lost to approaching progress especially if there were alternative choices. Aside from his role in the community in providing fresh food, it was his direct descendants that settled portions of the land where Bi-Zi Farms is still located— way back in 1872—before the state of Washington was even a state.

Additional Resources:

Farmland Information Center 2007 Natural Resources Inventory(pdf)

The American Farmland Trust slide presentation below documents the loss of farmland from 1982-2007:

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