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Overview of Whatcom County Purchase of Development Rights Program

Volume 7 Issue 9

Chris Elder, Whatcom County

The Purchase of Development Rights program is governed by Chapter 3.25A of the Whatcom County Code. This specifies that private farmland owners may voluntarily apply to sell their development rights through an agricultural conservation easement, provided the land is located outside of an established urban growth area and within Rural 5A, Rural 10A or Agriculture zoned land, and provided it meets any additional eligibility criteria as defined in the PDR program guidelines. The county maintains a website with a copy of the program guidelines, application, and other information, which is accessible here:

The program guidelines include a set of site criteria that rank applicants higher for soils, size of parcel, active agricultural use, proximity to compatible uses, as well as risk to the land of conversion away from ag use.

Interviews of past program participants tell us that farmers motivated to both preserve farmland and realize additional financial capital are the best fit for the process.

“There is a philosophical or value side of it which is sort of where I was coming from. I wanted fair value, of course, but obviously if I didn’t want to do it I would not have done it. If I wanted to divide it up then I would have done that…. It was a balance between the economic benefit and the philosophical benefit.”

“This is a way to protect it and get some cash but money was not my only motivation.”

After applying, there is a long process of review, appraisal, and approval that is coordinated between the farmer, the county, the Whatcom Land Trust, and the funding partner – in most cases USDA. There is flexibility in the process, but it does take about a year to complete (sometimes even two years). Once the agricultural conservation conservation easement deed is signed and recorded, the farmer retains private ownership of the land, and communicates annually with the Whatcom Land Trust to ensure the terms of the easement are working for all parties.

“Farmers don’t like to feel boxed in or micro-managed they need to understand that they will still maintain a lot of control over their property.”
“I really don’t see a way around the timeline given the number of things they need to have come together. I thought it was reasonable, especially for government.”
“I felt they [county PDR staff] were on my side and were advocating for me.”
“Once a year they [the Whatcom Land Trust staff] call me up to schedule a time, come take some pictures and do their thing. They seem nice enough.”

The money for the conservation easement is paid at closing. Any mortgages or liens need to subordinate to the terms of the easement. Sometimes Purchase of Development Rights program participants use the easement money to pay off other bank loans, or do farm-related investments:

“We’d been borrowing money since we got married over 40 years ago and all of a sudden everything was debt free.”
“I invested it [money from the easement sale] back into the farm.”
“We used it [money from the easement sale] to service debt and pay expenses. We had expanded the farm and bought a lot of land and had a lot of expenses.”

Overall, participant farmland owners say this about the program:

“I think it’s a good program with good objectives. It’s good to be looking at the long range of the county; I support that. But when it gets down to it everybody’s situation is different and so it’s up to the individual.”
“I could do this [the PDR program] and invest in my business or I could sell off to a developer and watch them have their way with it. I knew that I didn’t want my area developed.”
“I am a 3rd generation farmer, I hope one of my kids will be the 4th. This is not just my family’s land we are in care of this resource for the future. This is beyond economics, I want to see this resource protected for the long, long term.”
“What we wanted to do with that land was to keep it in ag. We put it together to keep it in ag.”

Whatcom County has been awarded 1.3 million dollars through the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program. This project is titled Whatcom County Working Lands Conserving Watersheds and represents a partnership between Whatcom County, Whatcom Conservation District, Ag Water Board, and the Whatcom Land Trust. By engaging the membership of the Watershed Improvement Districts, we’re hoping to get farmers more engaged in directing the County to where priority lands for protection are located.

If you think the Purchase of Development Rights program is a good fit for you and your farm, please contact us for more information:

Chris Elder, Purchase of Development Rights Program Administrator
Planning and Development Services
5280 Northwest Drive
Bellingham, WA 98226