WA Farm Bureau misrepresents facts to support ballot Initiative

Washington Farm Bureau's President, Steve Appel, recently made public comments on the occasion of the kickoff for the land use initiative that organization has just filed.

First off, I congratulate Mr. Appel for bearing a quintessentially apropos name for his work here in our apple state.

But back to more prosaic matters, alas.

In that kickoff speech, which is published on the website promoting the initiative, Mr. Appel tells about Bruce Ritter who owns a small amount of non-agricultural land (10 acres) and presents his case as an example of a property owner whose plight resembles that of thousands of others across the state who would be helped by the initiative.

This choice is a matter of some public interest.  Why not a farmer?   And why only one family?

Odder than this choice of a representative landowner, and more troubling, is the inaccuracy in Mr. Appels' statement about the Ritter property.  Half of the assertions made by Mr. Appel are easily debunked.  The other half are not substantiated and are, in fact, shown by the public record to almost certainly be untrue.

Accuracy of the Washington Farm Bureau Speech
Mr. Appel's speech characterizes all organizations that oppose the Farm Bureau's initiative as also "simply oppos(ing) all property rights", and continues on after other observations with the following statement:

Under the proposed Thurston County Critical Areas Ordinance, the entire lot where they (the Ritters) now live would be within a wetlands buffer zone - mobile home, horse barn, well, and septic system all regulated out of existence.  He would also lose the use of 75% of the adjoining lot.  He would lose the use of almost 9 of the 10 acres he owns...  And, as Bruce told the Thurston County Planning Commission, his land would be virtually worthless.

I called the Farm Bureau and was referred to Dean Boyer, the Farm Bureau's Director of Public Relations, who told me that this statement was made on the basis of public testimony that Mr. Ritter gave before the Thurston County Planning Commission. Mr. Boyer also told me that my challenge was "ridiculous", and my approach "absurd". When I recovered from that blow, I picked myself up and followed through on his tip. I found Mr. Ritter's testimony, given on 8/24/05, here.   (There was also public testimony on the proposed regulations on August 25, 2005 and September 27, 2005. All of this testimony is worth reading in order to better understand some of the challenges that property owners are facing and why they are complaining.)

On that day, Mr. Ritter testified to the commission that he was "basically stuck with properties that are almost totally unusable." Commission Chair Liz Kohlenberg responded to Mr. Ritter by telling him that existing houses would be protected - or grandfathered - under the proposed regulations.   Earlier in the evening, John Sonnen, the County's principal planner, had testified that no lawfully existing current uses or structures would be prohibited by the new regulations (page 2 of the meeting minutes).

Ignorance is no excuse for presenting misinformation to the public on an important matter when it is possible to verify in advance whether the information is accurate. But Mr. Ritter cannot claim ignorance or a mere dereliction of due diligence. He was told directly that his buildings would not be regulated out of existence. He should not have told Mr. Appel that his home was in danger, if that is indeed what happened, as Mr. Boyer claimed. Mr. Appel should not have presented this claim without verifying it.

Even aside from Mr. Ritter's testimony, it is a matter of public record, verifiable by looking at the proposed regulations that existing structures will be protected and that, in addition, a "reasonable accommodation" of up to 5,000 square feet will be allowed per property, even if it is necessary to build partially within buffer areas.  Beyond that, larger structures may be allowed, depending on circumstances.  Additional allowances are made for septic systems

In an email sent to me yesterday, Thurston County's Cindy Wilson wrote the following:

The proposed new CAO regulations do not effect existing development.  New development would trigger review under the CAO.  If, under the new regulations, the homesite was located within a wetland buffer, that use can continue as a legal non-conforming use and structure.  The County will not make people remove their structures or change existing uses.  Expansion of those uses or structures may be limited within the buffer areas under the new CAO, but accommodation has been attempted by recognizing maintenance and small expansions that may be desired by future property owners without causing environmental impacts.

Clearly, it is not true that Mr. Ritter's existing structures will be regulated out of existence.  And clearly, it is very likely that he will be able to build on his second property - at least up to 5,000 sq. feet and, depending on an individual assessment of his property, perhaps larger than that.

Accuracy of the testimony to the Thurston County Planning Commission
Mr. Ritter's testimony was recorded, in part, as follows:

When he first bought his property for his family to live in a farm-like environment with horses six years ago he had nearly 100% use of one five-acre lot.  He bought a second five-acre lot.  Because of wetlands it is probably 60% usable.  Now, under the proposal, it appears the properties are engulfed with (environmental) boundaries.  The properties have gone from 100 to 300 foot buffers without any notification.

I went into Thurston County's Geodata Center which provides a parcel viewer of Thurston County properties.  Information is available on both the property of the address given in Mr. Ritter's testimony and the adjacent, vacant, property.  This public information shows that his two lots were purchased at the same time - on June 23, 1995, not at separate times, as he indicates in his testimony.  June 1995 is more than 10 years ago, not six, as his testimony indicated.  The parcel viewer shows that there is a 200-foot buffer for the wetlands on both his properties, not a 300 foot buffer, as he claimed.

An additional discrepancy is that Mr. Ritter said he had nearly 100% use of his five-acre lot when he bought it.   Applying the wetlands overlay on the geodata map shows two large wetlands on his properties.  I was told in my calls to Thurston County that wetlands show up on these maps when they are half-an acre (21,780 sq. ft.) or larger.  Under existing law in Thurston County, wetlands that are 22,000 square feet or larger are currently regulated.  So, unless both these wetlands are between 21,780 and 22,000 sq. feet, they were both regulated when he bought them.  It is almost certain that they do not fall within this size.  First, they cover a good big portion of the Ritter property, well over 1/10th of each of the 5 acre lots depicted.  Second, each wetland is shown as noticeably bigger than wetlands on nearby properties.

Reliability of wetland depictions on Thurston County's Geodata map
Prohibitions against building on wetlands or within wetland buffers kick in when someone applies for a permit to build.  The information that shows up on the Geodata site is considered to be reliable as an initial indicator of what a property owner might expect, but not perfect.  Until someone has his or her property surveyed by a wetlands specialist, there is no public record of the size of a wetland. The person I spoke with at the Thurston County permit center when I called yesterday, told me that no permits have been applied for on this property since the 1980s and that the County has never done a wetlands assessment on this property.

Cindy Wilson, in her email to me which was referenced above, also wrote the following:   "There is no positive way to tell what the size of the wetland is or whether it connects to other wetlands or streams without visiting the property."

So, unless Mr. Ritter has had a private wetlands biologist do an assessment, neither he nor Mr. Appel nor any of us know how the law now applies to his property.  It is conceivable that the two large wetlands shown on Mr. Ritter's property don't actually exist or are substantially smaller.  However, this is extremely unlikely - especially as no such assertion was made by Mr. Ritter during his testimony (which indicates that he was looking at a printed copy of this map.)  I called Mr. Ritter and left a message on his phone telling him that I would like to see any maps he has on his property.  So far, he has not returned this call.   Mr. Boyer told me that he has a map that substantiates Mr. Ritter's claims.  However, he told me that he would not copy it and send it to me.  I would have to come and view it in person.  My reading of Mr. Ritter's testimony leads me to believe that the map in the Farm Bureau office probably shows the same information as that on the Geodata site - not worth a trip from South King County to Olympia for me, especially as the burden of proof of these unsubstantiated claims rests upon the entity that has made them.

While there is no way to say for sure how the law currently applies to Mr. Ritter in all of its details -- and all the details on how the proposed changes would affect him, we can say for sure that:

  • When he purchased his property in 1995, there is almost no chance that he would have had close to 100% use of it
  • He will be permitted to keep his current structures and, almost certainly, to build up to 5,000 square feet on his vacant lot
  • His claims are highly questionable and, in regards to an issue of such profound public importance, should have been substantiated before they were made, and
  • His testimony to the Thurston County Planning Commission contained several factual errors

The unique knowledge and abilities of private property owners
The proposed Farm Bureau initiative contains this statement:

The people also intend to recognize and promote the unique interests, knowledge, and abilities private property owners have to protect the environment and land.

It is a shame that such an important statement, that touches on such a central truth, is surrounded by so much rhetoric and untruth.  Many million of acres of US land, close to half our land, is in agricultural use. Obviously, much more is in non-agricultural private ownership.  We all depend upon the knowledge of the people who own the land to keep us safe and fed.   The challenges of globalization make it even more urgent that our land-owning house is in order here in the United States.  Just last year, the United States went from a net exporter of agricultural products to a net importer.  We will lose more market share as independent farmers continue to lose autonomy.  Other challenges, climate change, declining habitat, increases of plant diseases, etc. make the knowledge of private property owners increasingly more valuable to the public and to our national and state economy and security.  Local knowledge is like gold.  Separating people from their land - most notably through the practices of trans-national agribusiness that have standardized farming and reduced the autonomy of the farmer, makes us increasingly less resilient in our ability to respond to any of the multiple crises that face us.  It is a dangerous trend.

Washington's Farm Bureau must be more accountable for its actions
If this initiative passes, it will impact all of us profoundly. We deserve to know more about what we are asked to vote on.  The main proponent of the initiative has a responsibility to provide a good case that goes beyond rhetoric and unsubstantiated assertions.  If the initiative's sponsor meets my humble little good-faith question with scorn, do we have cause to think that it is ready to be accountable to the public?  

A problem we must solve
The inconvenience, disappointment, and suffering experienced by people in rural Washington demands and deserves to be recognized.  It is a disgrace that so many farmers have been driven out of business and so many more struggle to stay in business.  A recent film made by the son of a Wentachee farmer, Broken Limbs, shows a farm couple attending the auctioning of their land and their dreams - and the husband's subsequent job as a janitor in a church.  It tells of uncounted numbers of farmers in Washington driven out off business. These are tragedies. The testimony offered by landowners in Thurston County on that county's proposed critical areas update, linked to above, is recommended reading.  There's some hyperbole here, for example in Mr. Ritter's testimony.  But there is also much evidence of, as they say, real people and real pain.

Land dispossession in the United States: A real issue
These land issues are not going to go away until we face them truthfully in ways that meet the core problems.  We must go much deeper than what the proponents of this initiative are proposing and engage in a national soul searching on the issue of land ownership and use. The experience of the Wenatchi tribe, whose land truly has been stolen by the US government in the form of shamefully broken treaties, puts the accusations of government land theft that the initiative's proponents are making into an entirely different context. So do the facts surrounding the dispossession of Japanese farmers across the country -- and right here in Bellevue during WWII. And so do the facts surrounding the precipitously declining African American farm ownership in the United States:

Dispossession is an especially acute problem for African-American farmers.... (B)y the 1920s more than 200,000 African-American farmers owned land, and in total nearly one million black families farmed. However, during a single generation, from 1954 to 1987, farms with African-American operators declined by 95%, and between 1950 and 1974 the number of African-American owners dropped 80%. As a USDA demographer observes, this has been "one of the most remarkable social and economic transformations in the history of our country. The decline of black farming continues today. The nation stands at the verge of losing, perhaps permanently, significant farmland ownership by African-Americans."
Poverty, Racial Discrimination and the Family Farm Carpenter, Stephen. Poverty & Race. Washington: Feb 28, 1997.Vol.6, Iss. 1; pg. 2

State and county governments are not stealing citizens' land. Everything I have seen leads me to believe that we have, on the whole, good government here in Washington State. The widespread land dispossession we see comes from past and perhaps current federal government policy in relation to Native Americans and African Americans, the realities of transnational agribusiness as well as other globalization trends, and over-development of the land by non-agricultural interests. Perhaps there are other causes,as well. Given these hard realities that fall on the shoulders of individual property owners -- and the evident willingness of leaders in organizations like Washington's Farm Bureau to tell untruths, rebuff legitimate requests for accountability, and make inflammatory statements, is it any wonder that citizens suspect their state and local government agencies of intending to steal their land? This distrust is a real problem. If the Farm Bureau initiative passes, we will sorely miss the environmental regulations it overturns.

Political shortcuts and tricks, such as making inflammatory statements and presenting unverified assertions as facts - are not going to help farmers or anyone else deal with complex land use issues.  Insulting and intimidating people who ask for accountability, is simply counterproductive.  These tactics trivialize the real issues, stand in the way of public deliberation, prolong the personal and economic distress people are facing in Washington around land use, and increase our danger in relation to environmental challenges.

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Great information to get out and worthy research.  I'll be in Olympia on Monday if you think it would be useful to see that one map.  Let me know if I can help and what to look for.  Thanks for what you do.  

by nudger on Fri Feb 17, 2006 at 06:59:36 PM PST

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  • Thanks, Nudger by noemie maxwell, 02/17/2006 07:16:23 PM PST (5.00 / 2)
This is a great post.

I just want to let you know you are one of my favorite writers - anywhere. I never respond to your stories because they say it all, but I read every one. I thought I should let you know you have more readers than commenters.

Keep it up and thanks.

by SeattleLiberal on Fri Feb 17, 2006 at 09:43:05 PM PST

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I have forwarded the link to this article to the 26th LD Democrats. The CAO is going to be one big bone of contention in Kitsap County, as in other rural/transitional areas, and I believe your research will do a great deal to help those who support the CAO. The local Democrats are among them.

Many thanks, Noemie.

by Kitsap River on Fri Feb 17, 2006 at 11:15:52 PM PST

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This is what I wish I could do better.

Thank you!

by Jimmy on Sat Feb 18, 2006 at 07:27:33 PM PST

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Noemie, Great blog...it seems as if the developers are into scaring people, buying thier land and then developing it through some loop hole in the law.  


by runanddance on Sun Feb 19, 2006 at 03:07:55 PM PST

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  • Carol -- by noemie maxwell, 02/19/2006 03:12:32 PM PST (none / 0)


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by lovem on Sun Jun 22, 2008 at 06:21:23 AM PST

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