Is Your City Planning for Farms?

A Checklist for Supporting Farms at the City Level in Washington

Does your city…

…allow rural businesses compatible with agriculture in farming areas?
Home-based occupations such as farm machinery repair shops, sawmills and other rural businesses can help farm families make ends meet. They can also provide an economically viable alternative to selling farmland for development.

…have business infrastructure that supports modern farms?
Modern farming operations require services, as do other businesses. To support farm businesses, towns should ensure that telephone, electric and other wires are high enough to prevent accidents with farm equipment. They also should make snowplowing on roads leading to dairy farms a priority so that milk trucks can collect milk easily and should maintain good culverts and drainage systems to help move water away from farm fields. Cities should also check their roads and bridges to determine whether they can handle tractor-trailers, which are commonly used to provide goods and services to farms.

…act as a resource for information about property tax reduction programs aimed at farmers and other farmland owners?
Local governments and Washington State have developed a number of programs aimed at reducing property taxes for farmers and other owners of farmland.


Encourage the Long-Term Viability of Farming and Food Production

Does your city…

…have a detailed section on agriculture in the city’s comprehensive plan?
The comprehensive or master plan is the big picture view for the future of the city. Does your city’s comprehensive plan refer to “maintaining rural character” but overlook agriculture as the primary component? Consider having a town-appointed committee profile local farms to demonstrate the economic, cultural and environmental benefits of agriculture. Agriculture shouldn’t be an afterthought!

…have policies aimed at limiting the impact of new development on productive farmland?
Does your town have strategies for limiting the footprint of new development? Creative site planning can accommodate new development while limiting the loss of your city’s best farmland. 

…require buffer zones between farmland and residential uses?
The old saying “good fences make good neighbors” has a modern corollary that says, “good buffer zones make new neighbors into good neighbors.”New development should not place the burden on existing farms to give up boundary land as a buffer zone between agricultural and residential areas. New residential development should provide for its own buffer zone and/or landscape plantings for screening when necessary.

…have an “agricultural zone” that limits the impacts of new development on farms?
Does your city have a strategy for managing new development in agricultural zones in a way that supports agriculture over the long term? Many cities in Washington have zoning ordinances with “agricultural zones” that permit scattered development next to farms—a recipe for future conflict.


Support Positive Relationships Between Farmers and Others in Your Community

Does your city…

…have farmers serving on local planning boards, zoning boards or local economic development committees?
Having farmers serve on city committees is one of the most effective ways for towns to incorporate agricultural concerns into local land use or economic development plans. Agricultural advisory committees can also be established to provide guidance to a town.

…have a consistent approach for local procedures that deal with agriculture?
City councils, planning and zoning boards have different responsibilities, but a common regulatory outlook is possible. Update your comprehensive plan to reflect the value that agriculture contributes to your city’s quality of life through open space, wildlife habitation, watershed purification and natural resource preservation. Establish, as a policy, that agriculture is beneficial to your town and fairness will follow.

…work to pro-actively address trespassing on farmland?
When people trespass on farmland, crops, fields and infrastructure can be damaged. Communities can help protect public safety and prevent needless farm losses by pro-actively addressing trespassing problems.

…properly assess specialized agricultural structures?
Has your county assessor received training on assessing farmland and farm buildings? Specialized structures such as silos, milking parlors and permanent greenhouses depreciate in value over time. If your town frequently overvalues agricultural structures, this can have a chilling effect on all types of farm investment.

…have planning tools that are supportive of.
Does your town incorporate the boundaries of agricultural districts into your zoning maps and other local land use policies?

…have policies to mitigate conflicts between farmers and non-farm neighbors?
A local right to-farm law expresses a community’s support for agriculture. It can also prevent unnecessary lawsuits between farmers and non-farm neighbors by referring conflicts to mediation before the courts are involved.


Protect Agricultural Land and Keep It Actively Farmed

Does your city…

…identify areas where it wants to support agriculture over the long term?
Do you know where the best agricultural soils are located in your city? The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Soil and Water Conservation Districts can be important partners in identifying productive agricultural soils. Soil data combined with other information can help towns identify priority farming areas where they want to support agriculture over the long term.

…have policies aimed at retaining large blocks of farmland that are able to support a variety of farm businesses?
Farmers don’t want to be an “island in a sea of development.” Has your town developed policies to keep large blocks of land in agricultural use over the long term? Larger areas of farmland provide greater opportunities for farms to adapt to changing market conditions. Retaining such blocks helps to ensure a future for farming.

…limit expansion of infrastructure in areas where it wants to support agriculture over the long term?
Extending water and sewer lines through farmland should be done with caution. Providing these services without accompanying planning measures can accelerate the loss of farmland. Focusing water, sewer and other services in already developed areas can help limit the development of a town’s best farmland.

Encourage Public Appreciation for Local Agriculture

Does your city…

…have any visible demonstration of the value of local farms?
Does your town support a fair, an apple festival or other farm events? When agriculture is visible to the public, residents will better understand the benefit of having farms in town.

…publicize where to go to get advice and assistance on farm questions?
Towns should help connect farmers with local, state and federal agricultural and conservation organizations that can serve as resources.

…recognize the property tax benefits of farmland and support tax policies that are fair to farmland owners?
While farmland may provide less tax revenue per acre than other land uses, it also requires significantly less in local services. Cost of Community Services studies in most towns have demonstrated that farmland generally pays more in taxes than it receives in local services. By comparison, residences generally require more in local services than they pay in taxes. Has your town considered adopting agricultural assessment values for fire, library or other service districts as a means of demonstrating that farmland requires fewer public services?


Strengthen Economic Opportunities for Farms and Related Businesses

Does your city…

…allow agricultural uses in more than one zoning district?
Agricultural businesses are not the same as other commercial development. Some towns confine agricultural businesses to the commercial zone only, while other towns prohibit such uses in the commercial zone. Farm enterprises often are hybrids of several different uses. Ordinances and regulations should allow farm business flexibility.

…allow flexibility in regulations to accommodate the unusual needs of agricultural businesses?
Does your town have appropriate regulations for farm retailers such as expanded hours of business, temporary and off-site signs, parking near pick-your own fields, or on street parking? The land use impact and off-site impact of a seasonal farm business can be much less than that of a full-time retail business. Pick-your-own operations or Christmas tree farms may have a hard time staying viable in a town that treats farms like all other retailers.

…allow farm stands to sell produce purchased elsewhere?
Many towns have rules that require a certain percentage of farm stand produce to be grown on the farm. The basis for allowing a farm stand shouldn’t be limited to how much is grown on the farm but should also consider what benefits the farm provides to the town in terms of open space, wildlife habitation, watershed purification and natural resource protection.