Washington Farmlands At Risk

August 30, 2023

A Washington farm on his tractor

For decades, Washington has been a bright spot for farmland preservation. Nationally, Washington is in the top two states for our policy response to protect agriculture and our success in preventing farmland conversion. However, recent trends and court decisions threaten our family farms and local food systems.

Since 1990, Futurewise has worked with local communities to protect Washington farms from suburban sprawl. We’ve secured major victories in that time that protected more than 1.5 million acres of agricultural lands. Every year, we bring new legal appeals to the Growth Management Hearings Board in our efforts to protect our food system.

But our work is just getting started. The American Farmland Trust’s Farms Under Threat report shows that Washington is in danger of losing nearly 200,000 acres of farmland and ranchland. That loss would be the equivalent to 3,000 farms, $178 million in farm output and 7,5000 jobs. So what can you and Futurewise do about it?

Let’s start with what’s going well. Here’s just a few recent victories Futurewise has been a part of:

  • Conserving Orchard Land in Douglas County: Futurewise recently secured a victory in convincing the Board of County Commissioners of Douglas County to deny a comprehensive plan amendment and rezone to change approximately 115 acres from Rural Resource 5 (RR-5) to Rural Service Center (RSC). This would have allowed commercial development on the 115 acres which is mostly orchard land. The rezone would have been an illegal urban development in the rural area. (Read our comment letter)
  • Protecting Farm and Ranch Land in Ferry County: In 2020, Futurewise won our appeal in Ferry County. We argued, along with our local partners Concerned Friends of Ferry County, that the county had not designated enough agricultural land to maintain the county’s agricultural industry. Ferry County had only designated 3,344 acres of private farmland to be protected. That’s out of the 788,660 acres of land that is currently farmed in the county. Agriculture is one of Ferry County’s leading industries. Now we are working to make sure that the county follows through on passing a new ordinance that fully protects all agricultural lands of long-term commercial significance. (Read our comment letter)
  • Helping Thurston County Update Agricultural Zoning: Futurewise is working proactively with Thurston County to increase the amount of farm and ranch land that is designated as Long-Term Agriculture. In 2020, Futurewise brought an appeal to the Growth Management Hearings Board to better protect agricultural lands in Thurston County. We’re pleased that, in response to our appeal, the County is working with us to update their zoning to protect local farms. (Read our comment letter)
  • Increasing Acreage of Farmland Eligible for Protection: For several years, Futurewise has advocated for the Department of Commerce to update their rules that determine which lands must be considered agricultural lands of long-term commercial significance and therefore protected in most cases. This spring, thanks to our advocacy and support from partners like American Farmland Trust, Commerce updated the rules to increase eligible farmland by 9 million acres! (Read more about the rule change)

So what’s the issue?

Recent rulings by the Court of Appeals threaten to undo our advocacy to protect local farms and undermine state policy that protects farmland from sprawl. That’s why Futurewise is bringing a petition for review to the State Supreme Court on two cases. Petitions for review are the method of trying to convince the State Supreme Court that the court should review a lower court decision. The goal is to show the court there are important questions of law that the State Supreme Court should rule on. If we are successful with our petition for review, the State Supreme Court will hear the case and we will have the chance to reverse the local court ruling.

  • King County Wineries, Breweries and Distilleries Ordinance: For the past 3 years, Futurewise has been advocating, along with our partner, Friends of Sammamish Valley (FoSV), to protect small farms, including many immigrant and BIPOC owned farms, in the Sammamish Valley from speculation and development. We won our appeal before the Growth Management Hearings board. However, this win was overturned at the Court of Appeals. Now we, along with our partners, FoSV, are bringing petitions for review to the State Supreme Court. The main issue is whether or not the GMA requires adequate protection for agricultural lands of long-term commercial significance in the uses allowed on agricultural lands. (Read our petition for review and FoSV’s petition for review)
  • Franklin County Agricultural Lands: In Franklin County, we are currently trying to prevent an expansion of the Pasco Urban Growth Boundary into thousands of acres of farmland that was shown in the comprehensive plan as being of long-term commercial significance. The case hinges on a county interpretation that the land was never intended to be designated agricultural lands of long-term commercial significance. (Need a refresher on what “de-designation” and “long-term commercial significance” mean? Check out this blog post.) Similar to our work in King County, we won our appeal before the Growth Management Hearings Board, but lost before the Court of Appeals. We have brought a petition for review to the State Supreme Court on this case as well. (Read the petition for review)

Winning at the State Supreme Court isn’t our only opportunity to fight for local farms. All over the state, local communities are advocating for farmland preservation, often joining Futurewise in our legal appeals. And if we’re not successful in our legal appeals, we can also pursue both local and statewide legislation to improve agricultural land protections. Thank you for being a part of our work to protect Washington's family farms for decades to come!