Reptile Zoo seeks farm status
Expanding on ag land requires county OK, and there's opposition
Tristin Salmon, 10, of Arlington, enjoys the company of a corn snake at the Reptile Zoo.
Dan Bates / The Herald
Patrons spend part of a chilly day recently looking at unusual and rare reptiles at the Reptile Zoo in Monroe.
A long, slender black mamba is one of the most active creatures at the Reptile Zoo.
Dan Bates / The Herald
Julius Sidow, 4, of Redmond, takes a picture of an unusual-looking Florida soft shell turtle at the Reptile Zoo in Monroe.
"Reptile Man" Scott Petersen hopes so.
The owner of the Washington Serpentarium, aka the Reptile Zoo on U.S. 2 east of Monroe, wants to expand. His landlord has an adjacent piece of land that, with a little political willpower, might work.
"With a new building and some signs, we could probably quadruple our attendance," Petersen said. "As close as we are to Seattle, this has a lot of potential."
The revamped facility could include birds, fish and other animals.
Of course, there's a problem: The other piece of land is zoned for farming. And local farmers don't appear too keen on changing the county's land-use rules to allow an expanded reptile exhibit there.
At issue is a quirk in the code for museums, which is how county planners classified the reptile zoo, because it was the closest definition they could find. As it stands, the county only allows museums on farmland in buildings that existed before Oct. 31, 1991.
Earlier this year, County Council staff drafted an ordinance that would have gotten rid of that date so that museums -- or in this case a reptile zoo -- would be allowed in newer buildings on farmland. The proposal mentions that museums would support agricultural tourism and would likely have minimal impact, because there are unlikely to be many of them.
The council sent the proposal to the Agricultural Advisory Board for an opinion. The answer: a firm no. It came in the form of a unanimous resolution during the board's September meeting.
"You call it a museum and you raise an animal, but it's there for people to look at," said Mark Craven, the ag board's vice chairman.
Agriculture is raising crops or livestock, Craven said. For him, livestock means raising animals to sell or eat, not for display.
"That's taking ag land out and starting tourism, basically," said Craven, who hosts a pumpkin patch and weddings at his farm near Lord Hill.
Councilman John Koster, a former dairy farmer, introduced the museum proposal but said he has yet to decide whether he supports it. He said he first wanted to hear from the ag board.
The County Council has yet to schedule a hearing on the issue, and it's not clear whether it will.
The apparent impasse hasn't stopped Petersen's landlord, Marc Bhend, from pushing the issue. The Swiss-born former-school-teacher-turned-developer said the county's rules are impeding viable businesses.
The reptile museum's current building is in a rural business zone. The zoning has never been an issue since the zoo moved there from Gold Bar eight years ago.
Bhend would like to put the new facility on 60 acres that front U.S. 2 next door. About two or three of those acres, at most, would be necessary for the new facility, he said. The plan could cost up to $3 million.
"I have a lot of ideas of how we could create a much nicer design in a new building," he said. "To do the museum justice, I think we need to be able to build a brand-new building in an architectural style that will make a statement."
The new development, Bhend argues, would dovetail nicely with the county's plan to turn the U.S. 2 corridor into a tourism magnet for outdoor activities from hiking to wakeboarding.
"This would be great for the area," he said. "This would really draw tourists."
The property is zoned A10, the county's main designation for agricultural land. These days, it's leased for cattle grazing.
Bhend for years has tried without success to convince the county to let him develop it for other use, including an RV park.
Many Snohomish Valley farmers make their living from weddings, pumpkin patches and other activities that are peripheral to growing crops.
Bhend said he has no problem with that, though he'd like some leeway with his land, as well. He points out that county code offers all kinds of uses on agricultural land that don't conform to traditional views of farming. They include fallout shelters, wedding facilities and some kinds of dog kennels. There's even a golf driving range on farmland near Snohomish.
With a permit, the possible uses expand to park-and-ride lots, golf courses, transit centers and vet clinics.
County Council Chairman Dave Somers agrees that Bhend "may have a point on some of the issues."
"They push the boundaries of what's related to agriculture," Somers said.
Still, he can't bring himself to agree with the idea of letting a reptile zoo, or a museum, on farmland. He previously opposed Bhend's plan for an RV park.
"Marc's ideas have been pretty over the line," Somers said.
Bhend also has argued that a reptile zoo could qualify as animal husbandry under county code.
County planning director Clay White said Bhend would have to go through a different process to make the animal-husbandry argument. Seeking a code change for museums, White said, is probably a better fit for the business.
All of that leaves Petersen's business in limbo.
The former high school biology teacher known as "The Reptile Man" travels regularly to schools to show children snakes, lizards and other critters. That work, like his serpentarium, is part of a broader mission to get "kids to love nature and give them something to be excited about."
"I want to have kids go out and discover nature," he said. "Bugs, birds, everything. Not just reptiles."
His reptile zoo draws about 40,000 visitors per year, he said. Admission is $5 for children, $6 for adults.
Today, his collection includes tortoises and giant lizards as well as pythons, boas and vipers. Another side of the building has frogs, spiders and insects.
There's a two-headed turtle named Pete and Repeat. An 18-foot anaconda resides in a Plexiglas cage that allows curious onlookers to take a look from underneath.
Petersen said he's de-venomized all of his poisonous snakes. One is a black mamba, which, contrary to its name, is a stone-gray color.
"They are the deadliest animal on earth," Petersen said.
Children can pet the smaller, more docile snakes, including an orange albino corn snake.
Petersen sees snakes as the most persecuted animal in the world. Few people realize how much the maligned, legless reptiles have benefited mankind in ways related to agriculture.
"Snakes eat rodents, and that saves grain," he said. "So snakes have been saving us from starvation for thousands of years."
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; email@example.com.
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