Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Judge Rules Farming is Dead in Clark County

I guess all of our efforts have been in vain. Close the farmers' markets and refund the CSA shares. Turn 78th Street into playing fields and parking lots. Shutter the Urban Farm School and forget local agriculture pioneers like David Knaus and Jim & Diane Hunter. And let's not even think about the wonderful Locavore Delivery service provided by Dee Creek Farm. Judge Harris has decreed that farming is dead in Clark County. Long live the developers...we don't need no fresh, healthy food 'round here.

I say over my dead body. What about you? I say we rally at the County Courthouse, farmers and cityfolk standing side by side, and let Judge Harris know what we think of his rather ignorant opinion and poor judgment.

Judge rules in favor of growth plan
Friday, May 22 | 9:15 a.m.


A Clark County judge knocked back an environmental challenge to the county's 2007 urban growth plan Thursday, increasing the chance that hundreds of acres of current and former farmland will be developed.

Even on the county's remaining patches of high-quality soil, commercial farming is close to dead, Superior Court Judge Robert Harris wrote in an eight-page decision.

Harris' ruling, which is subject to appeal, would permit annexation on the outskirts of Camas, La Center and Washougal, including La Center's interchange on Interstate 5.

It would also allow eventual urban development in an area north of Washington State University Vancouver.

However, Harris seemed to prohibit urbanizing 780 acres of agricultural land south of Brush Prairie, which county commissioners had hoped to convert to a huge industrial park, and 343 acres at the northernmost tip of Camas, northwest of Lacamas Lake.

When county commissioners unanimously approved the plan in 2007, they fended off protests from environmentalists and the state commerce department, who said so many new roads and sewers would burden taxpayers.

The 19-square-mile urban expansion was the biggest on state record. Futurewise, a Seattle-based anti-sprawl group, appealed it.

On Thursday, environmentalists called Harris' ruling a "split decision" but said it might prove favorable enough for them not to risk appealing to the state Court of Appeals.

"The baby's been cut in half," said John Karpinski, a Vancouver environmental lawyer working with Futurewise.

La Center to expand

A county commissioner applauded the ruling Thursday. So did advocates for affected landowners and the city of La Center.

James Howsley, a development attorney who represents several affected landowners, said he thinks Harris might issue a clarification that would allow development south of Brush Prairie and northwest of Lacamas Lake.

"We are extremely happy for our clients," Howsley, of Vancouver law firm Miller Nash, wrote in an e-mail. "This is a wonderful thing especially for the small cities. This decision affirms the right of a community to decide for itself, based on historic and predicted conditions, where it is most appropriate to grow."

Thursday's decision is a big win for the city of La Center, which has spent years trying to expand west to Interstate 5.

Harris' ruling gives the city a chance to annex 665 acres along the highway.

La Center depends heavily on its four nontribal cardrooms, the city's biggest employers and taxpayers. Mayor Jim Irish and others want to broaden the city's economy.

"We just got a lot more industrial land," Dale Miller, La Center's planner, said Thursday. "It bodes well for future economic diversity in the town."

Thursday's decision will have no bearing on the federal review of a proposed tribal casino outside La Center.

Commissioner Steve Stuart said that if Harris' ruling stands, it means "greater economic development in the county, more opportunity for business to site here."

"I have no expectation that this will have an immediate impact, but it will have a long-term impact on the future economy of our county," Stuart said.

Harris: farming dying

In his ruling, Harris echoed the judgment of a 2005 economic study by the county, which concluded that professional farming in Clark County is in permanent decline.

The rising demand for locally grown food is "not sufficient to reverse the long-standing trends of declining farm activity" in the county, the study found.

In 2002, the study noted, only 170 local farms brought in more than $25,000 a year.

"It is fairly obvious that an annual income of $25,000 is not sufficient to support a family," Harris wrote.

Farming on 5-acre rural parcels, Harris wrote, "would be more likened to a hobby farm rather than representing long-term productive growth of agricultural product."

But Karpinski, the environmental lawyer, said the public has an interest in protecting small farms, too.

"What's wrong with a hobby farm?" he asked. "It's a second job for them. There's a lot of people working two jobs nowadays. … If people want to be growing locally grown food, we should be doing everything we can to encourage that activity."

Harris' ruling drew on the 2002 U.S. Census of Agriculture.

The 2007 Census of Agriculture, released this winter, showed continued decline in the number of Clark County farms grossing more than $100,000 a year. The value of big farms' output fell 10 percent over five years.

But the 2007 Census also showed an explosion in the number of local farms making less than $25,000 and also those making between $25,000 and $100,000.

The value of crops produced on small farms in the county jumped 33 percent from 2002 to 2007. For midsize farms, the growth was 11 percent.

Michael Andersen: 360-735-4508 or

Staff writer Jeffrey Mize contributed reporting.

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