Great news: the Washington Department of Commerce this month adopted new rules determining that farmland of statewide importance soils are now considered to have long-term commercial significance for the designation of agricultural land of long-term commercial significance. This literally increases the farmland eligible to be the GMA protected agricultural lands of long-term commercial significance by 8,968,484 acres. That is over 8 times the land eligible before this change!
What does this mean and how did we get here?
The United States Department of Agriculture works with our state Department of Agriculture to determine the quality of soils around the state. Together, they determine which soils in our state are best suited for farming. One of these high quality soils are called soils of statewide importance. The main criteria for this classification is the quality of the soils, along with other factors that determine how productively that soil can be farmed.
The Growth Management Act (GMA) requires counties and cities to designate agricultural land of long-term commercial significance. When designated, the GMA requires counties and cities to protect agricultural lands of long-term commercial significance from development. Agricultural lands of long-term commercial significance cannot be used for urban development. That means you can’t build things like subdivisions or big box stories on these lands. Classifying farmland as agricultural land of long-term commercial significance in comprehensive plans and in local development regulations is our most powerful tool for protecting farmland from development for generations to come.
Over the past several years, Futurewise, along with partners like the American Farmland Trust, have been asking the Department of Commerce to update rules that determine which lands can be considered agricultural lands of long-term commercial significance. In April 2023, the Department of Commerce updated the rules to determine that farmland of statewide importance soils (that classification that the USDA and Washington Department of Agriculture uses) are considered to have long-term commercial significance. This change means that nearly 9 million more acres of highly productive Washington farmland are eligible to be classified as agricultural lands of long-term significance in comprehensive plans and development regulations!
Before this change, Commerce’s minimum guidelines only recognized prime and unique farmland soils as having long-term commercial significance. Now prime soils, unique soils, and statewide significance soils are eligible for designation as agricultural lands of long-term commercial significance if they meet the other long-term commercial significance factors, such as predominate parcel size, and to be protected. At 8,968,484 acres, statewide significance soils make up the largest category of high-quality agricultural soils in the state. Prime soils make up 1,952,482 acres and unique soils make up 885,370 acres.
What’s the impact for Washington communities?
This is an incredibly important change for Washington’s food systems and local farmers. American Farmland Trust’s report Farms Under Threat has shown that Washington stands to lose 192,000 more acres of farmland to urban development and low-density housing if trends continue, on top of the nearly 98,000 acres that have already been lost.
These updated rules are an important step toward reversing that trend and protecting millions more acres of working farms for generations to come. Over the next four years, the entire state of Washington will be updating their comprehensive plans that will shape our communities for the next decade. Futurewise and our partners now have the opportunity to use this updated rule to ensure that the next round of comprehensive plan updates to accurately designate our working farms, and protect more of the 14,679,857 acres of land in farms in Washington State from sprawl and development.