County tests bid to steer builders

A high-stakes auction is under way in Snohomish County that officials hope will kick-start the preservation of thousands of acres of farmland.

County officials are asking $50,000 apiece for a certificate that would give the lucky buyer the right to develop four homes east of Arlington.

The county is selling development rights purchased from a Stillaguamish River Valley farm owner with the intent of transferring those rights to promote development elsewhere.

The auction is the county’s first attempt at reselling development rights. It’s offering 15 certificates this time.

“I’d love to see a bidding war,” County Councilman Gary Nelson said.

At least one potential buyer says the price isn’t right.

Officials moved quickly last year to buy farm owner Orin Barlond’s right to build on his land. They paid $2.1 million.

The Barlond purchase was the first under the county’s fledgling Transfer of Development Rights program, which is working to preserve a total of 3,700 acres of fertile farmland in the Stillaguamish River Valley.

Barlond’s 71 acres will be preserved as farmland under the deal. Future housing is barred from the property.

“The primary objective of the county was to preserve agricultural land,” county executive director Peter Camp said. “We achieved that.”

The county doesn’t want to be the middleman in future deals. Officials said they hope developers will buy building rights directly from farmers.

The auction concludes April 9.

“It will be interesting, to say the least,” County Councilman John Koster said.

The county has a total of 49 development rights certificates to sell.

The price is too steep, said Noel Higa, a developer whose Stillaguamish Crest LLC has options to purchase much of the land east of Arlington.

“Their starting bid is so high we’re probably not interested,” Higa said. Needed road and sewer improvements already are driving up the costs to develop the area, he said.

Still, he needs to buy some farmland development rights if he wants to build anything in that area.

The county plans to sell the development rights in three batches and learn from each auction, Camp said. The goal is to get the highest price for the county, he said.

If the $50,000 minimum bid holds up, the county would collect $2.45 million.

When the county bought the development rights, it paid as much as three times too much for the value of farmland, Higa said.”We’re very, very concerned at this point,” Higa said. “We’ve tried to meet with several landowners to get purchases going, but they look at what the county paid and say, ‘That’s what we want.’

“My guess is they’ll have to lower the starting price two or three times before they get any bidders,” Higa said.

The county has some leverage. Development rights are required to build homes on any of 337 acres east of Arlington that were designated in the county program.

Builders must show they hold one development certificate bought from a Stillaguamish Valley farmer for every four new houses. Arlington is moving to annex the area this spring.

County officials are working with Everett to draw up a way to use development certificates from farmers to build inside core cities.

If the auction falls short, officials said, they will just try to sell them again later.

“We’re going to perfect the process as we go,” Koster said. “Eventually, we will sell them.”

Reporter Jeff Switzer: 425-339-3452 or

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