County OKs sales of rights to conserve farm, forest lands

A new program aims to protect Snohomish County’s farms and forests while concentrating building activity elsewhere.

The transfer of development rights program creates a marketplace for building credits. Owners of farm and forest lands can sell these credits and continue farming or logging their land. Once the credits are transferred, however, the owners give up the ability to carve up the property for homes or new businesses.

The people who buy the credits can use them to construct taller, more concentrated buildings in places the county considers appropriate for higher-density growth.

If all goes as planned, sales could start this spring.

“It’ll hopefully result in the long-term and permanent preservation of farms and forests and eliminate them from the future threat of development,” said County Councilman Dave Somers, who sponsored the ordinance.

The market-based concept has been under consideration by the county, in various forms, since the early 1980s. The price of the credits is set by negotiations between buyers and sellers. Participation is voluntary.

The County Council approved the program 3-1 at an Oct. 17 hearing, with Councilman John Koster opposed. Koster said he liked the incentives, but thought the program would fail to protect high-value agricultural land because credits for less productive land, such wetlands in ag zones, would sell more cheaply.

In addition to the county’s program, a state transfer program created last year allows people to buy credits from within Snohomish County for construction projects in other parts of Western Washington.

The county launched a pilot transfer of development rights program with Arlington in 2005. The city of Snohomish has an active program, while Everett and Mountlake Terrace are considering their own. The county’s ordinance has garnered support from farming, building and environmental interests.

The conservation group Forterra, formerly known as the Cascade Land Conservancy, played a central role in drafting policies for the program.

“It really protects the quality of life,” said Nick Bratton, a project manager with Forterra.

Not only should the program benefit the farming and forest industries, Bratton said, but Snohomish County’s identity.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

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