How an Arlington subdivision was returned to farmland | KUOW News and Information

How an Arlington subdivision was returned to farmland

Jan 31, 2017

Farm becomes subdivision. It's an old story, and one that Arlington hay farmer Andrew Albert has seen a lot.

"Happens all the time. Land is farmed for generations, then one generation ends, the other takes over, and they have different ideas, and it's no longer a farm," Albert said.

But, at least once, Albert watched that story played backwards. A subdivision became a farm. And then he bought it.

Albert lives on the Albert Family Farm, a 90-acre plot that his grandparents bought in 1953. He farms on over 1,000 acres of farms spread out piecemeal in Arlington's fertile river valley.

Albert would often pass by a 140-acre dairy farm on his way down Highway 530, headed to Interstate 5. It was good land, and it flooded less often than his family plot.

Then, a few years back, the farmer who worked the land died and it was left to his children. They had a plan to transform it.

The land was level, accessible and had no trees on it. Land nearby was selling for good prices to housing developers. So they decided to turn it into a subdivision.

Albert couldn't possibly afford the land at that time. "I'd only been farming for a couple years," he said, "and they were asking millions of dollars."

Albert saw a road go in. He saw them lay down a cul de sac, run lines to power boxes and build a spec house. A sign went up advertising "15 new homes on 10-acre lots" on a new development called River Bend.

"The die was cast," Albert said. "It was a housing development, ready to sell."

But then, it wasn't. The housing market crashed, and the family couldn't find anyone who wanted to build houses on their lots. The development went into foreclosure.

"There it sat for years," Albert said, "kind of in limbo; until Forterra stepped in."

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A sign you don't often see: subdivision land turned back to farm land.
Credit KUOW Photo/Posey Gruener

Forterra is a land conservancy that works towards sustainable growth in the Northwest. For decades, Forterra has been securing places in urban, rural and wild landscapes that they believe are keystones of a sustainable future.

For Gene Duvernoy, Forterra's founder and president, River Bend was one of those keystone places.

"I think any citizen will tell you," Duvernoy said, "farmland strikes a very special chord in our public."

But Duvernoy also lists practical reasons to preserve farmland. "It can provide clean air, clean water, it helps to make sure that we have great recreational lands. It is visually very attractive. It provides our farmers markets and other outlets local food."

Another thing appealed to him: River Bend was a challenge.

"The whole system that we have around land use and permits is designed to go from farmland to subdivision," he said. 

"We had to swim upstream to erase permits, go into agreements with existing landowners and rectify them, go into these very technical regulations around hazardous waste, deal with a bank that had the property in foreclosure. It was a very arduous process — took us two or three years."

Once the land was available to farm again, Forterra looked for a buyer. And, because of something called a Transfer of Development Rights, farmer Andrew Albert could finally buy the land at a price he could afford.

Essentially, according to Duvernoy, a Transfer of Development Rights makes land affordable to farmers while still offering sellers a fair market price.

A graphic created by conservation group Forterra explains an example of how they work to maintain land for agriculture.
Credit Courtesy of Forterra

Think of it like this, Duvernoy explained: When you buy land, you're not just buying dirt. You're also buying rights.  You get a package of permissions for what you can do with that land. You might be able to build a road, for instance, or more houses, or maybe you could drill for minerals.

And once you've bought those rights, you can either use them or sell them to someone else. So that's what Forterra did.

"That's an abstract concept," Duvernoy said. But "we now have paid the farmer, in essence, what he or she would have made if they developed the land. We've paid them that. Then we have an agreement with the farmer that forever that land won't be developed."

Though it took years of work, Duvernoy is happy about the arrangement.  "We're so used to seeing signs going up on farms saying 'site of a new subdivision.' In this case, you saw a sign go up on subdivision land saying site of a new farm."

For his part, Albert is glad to have the land, even if it is a little difficult to farm around the remains of the development. "The cul de sac makes it more difficult, but compared to the other places I farm, it could just as easily be a creek or a wet spot or a slough."

Albert has a baby due in June (a boy, he hopes), and he's hoping one day to pass on the land. But even if it doesn't work out that way, "It's still going to be available for someone else that does want to farm it."

Duvernoy said that the permanent protection of this one piece of farmland is part of a much bigger picture.

"It is absolutely one little dot. But it's like those old pointillist pictures from France in the early 1900s. Dot after dot after dot makes an incredible picture. And that's what we're doing here," he said.

"We're conserving dot after dot after dot. And now there's thousands of acres of permanently conserved farmland. We're hardly done. But it all adds up."

Posey Gruener can be reached at pgruener@kuow.org. Have a story idea? Use our story pitch form.