Skagit County Charter, Agriculture, and Rural Representation

Timothy Manns, 9/26/2018
Photo by Gary Brown


Summary

Opponents of a county charter claim that changing the structure of county government will harm agriculture in Skagit County and deprive rural residents of representation, leaving them at the mercy of those living in town. These accusations have no basis in fact or reason. They are simply scare tactics for blocking positive improvements in county government. The 3-commissioner system has served a select few for many years. Those few would apparently prefer not to have the full geographic and demographic diversity of the county represented in policy setting and decision making. A county council of 5-9 part-time members would bring more voices and ideas to the table, including those representing agriculture and other rural interests. The result will be better decisions and broader support for them.

Background

Those opposed to Skagit County transitioning to a charter form of government (that is, a form designed and chosen by an elected group of citizens, the freeholders, then voted on by all the citizens) often cite preservation of agriculture in the county as a reason to oppose changing from the state-dictated three commissioner system. If you ask for the reasoning behind this, you hear the claim that agriculture has been ruined in counties with councils rather than commissioners, implying cause and effect. Those making this claim ignore the effects of development pressure from exploding populations and its effect on land values, and they ignore economic and other factors external to the counties. The claimants never offer any proof that changing county government causes decline in agriculture. It’s notable that in August of this year, the Pierce County Council decided to commit to protecting another 22,000 acres of farmland through their tax-supported Conservation Futures program. Through a similar program, King County, with its council, had protected 14,000 acres as of 2014, while Skagit had protected just 11,000. A look at how different counties have done on farmland preservation shows no pattern of a 3-commissioner system being more successful than a county council at protecting farmland, and in some cases just the opposite.

Opponents of county charter like to further their unsupported claims by saying that if we have a county council, the “cities” of Skagit County will dominate, there will be no representation of farmers and other rural residents, and it will be the end of agriculture here. Under the present 3 commissioner system, there are 3 commissioner districts, each with about 40,000 residents and a mix of town-dwellers and rural residents. It happens that at the moment, 2 of our commissioners live in unincorporated parts of the county, one lives in town. When any commissioner retires or is defeated, her or his successor could well be from one of the county’s towns. It is absurd, a slur really, to say that just because a person lives in town they are somehow hostile to farming and rural residents and would act, given the power of elected position, to harm them. Question any resident of Skagit’s incorporated areas, and you’ll find them supportive of, even enthusiastic about, agriculture in Skagit County. Town residents are not the farmers’ enemy. Town residents want to see agriculture thrive here. They boast about Skagit’s diverse and vibrant agricultural economy to friends and families who aren’t so blessed as to live in Skagit County. They help preserve it by happily contributing taxes each year for farmland preservation. They buy the food Skagit farmers produce. Obviously, by not living on it, town residents avoid taking up valuable farmland for housing. In many respects, town residents are the farmer’s best friend!

There is absolutely no basis for the claim that elected council members under a charter form of government, in contrast to 3 county commissioners, would act to harm agriculture. Look at the record. Whether deliberately or inadvertently, Skagit County Commissioners in recent years have made decisions arguably harmful to the perpetuation of agriculture here. Their reaction to the illegal building of pickle processing facilities in Dodge Valley some years ago was to change land use code to allow industrial agricultural activities throughout the county, hardly an act to preserve valuable farmland for crops or grazing. More recently, after directing Planning and Development Services to create a Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) program for the county, the County Commissioners voted to shelve it. A TDR program would have provided another tool for voluntarily extinguishing at least some of the many development rights (rights to build) scattered across Skagit’s valuable farmland and using private money to do it. Clearly, County Commissioners have sometimes acted in ways detrimental to preserving farmland for farming. What has been preserved instead is the speculative value in land as development pressure creeps towards Skagit County from north and south. A county council of 5-9 part-time members would be less likely to yield to the influence of a few influential people, and we would see better decisions made for farmland preservation.

As for rural representation, a county council of 5 to 9 part-time members, established under a charter approved by the voters, would offer broader representation to Skagit residents. Mathematically, a council is clearly more likely to have elected members who farm and who live in rural areas, as well as town residents. All are taxed to support county functions; all should have representation. Those who farm have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Those people who have said they are “adamantly” opposed to a county charter may have other things to lose that they won’t openly admit. It’s not preservation of agriculture that they’re concerned about.