County helps with farmland preservation —

County helps with farmland preservation

Joyce Campbell, Feb. 11, 2008, Methow Valley News

    There’s one more piece of farmland in the valley that will never be subdivided and sold for development.  The rich soils of the 110 acre irrigated cropland will continue to be turned over by a tractor instead of being turned into up to 22 five acre lots. 

    In a first-time cooperative partnership between Okanogan County and the Methow Conservancy, a conservation easement will permanently protect the highly productive farmland between Winthrop and Twisp, guaranteeing that the soils will remain available for farming into the future.

    Okanogan County is the first county in Eastern Washington to receive funding for farmland preservation through the Washington Wildlife and Recreation program’s newly legislated state farmland preservation fund.  In its first grant round, the recreation and Conservation Funding Board awarded $4.7 million to 11 projects statewide, including the Methow Valley project, which was ranked second in priority by the board.

    “The great thing is that by basically buying development rights, we’ve developed a framework in which land must be kept in farmable condition, and water rights have been maintained with the land,” said county commissioner Bud Hover.  “The landowner benefits by realizing the value of the property and keeps on farming.”

    The irrigated cropland is owned and farmed by Charles and Youngme Lehman on the Twisp Winthrop Eastside County Road, and has been farmed by the Lehman family for more than 100 years. 

    “It’s really a good idea to keep farmland farming,” said Charles.  “That’s why we’re doing it.”

    Hover said that the board of commissioners realizes the value of agricultural land and how much it contributes to the stability of our economy and overall rural character of the county.  Hover is a hay farmer and commissioner Mary Lou Peterson has a cherry orchard.

    “The Conservancy did a very good job of pulling the parts together to make it work for the county, the people of the Methow Valley and also for Charlie Lehman and his family,” said Hover.

    The Methow Conservancy worked to secure matching funding for the project through the federal Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program and a grant from the Peach Foundation.

    A conservation easement is a legal agreement between a willing landowner and public entity or land trust that typically reduces or eliminates future development  in order to protect conservation values such as wildlife habitat, working farms and ranches, scenic views and open spaces.

    Conservation easements are a permanent restriction on the property according to Jason Paulson, director of the Methow Conservancy.  He said landowners must think ahead to the future and what they envision as an ideal outcome for their property.  Agreements are tailored to meet the needs of the families and to protect key values.

    “In Theory, it’s the same as deciding to sell for development, but protecting it and receiving value,” said Paulson.

    The Methow Conservancy has collaborated with landowners to conserve more than 2,200 acres of farm and ranch land in the valley since 1996.  The non-profit organization currently works with landowners to steward more than 5,375 acres on 64 conservation easements.

    Okanogan County and the Methow Conservancy are working to identify future farmland protection projects in the Methow Valley.  Both entities hope to encourage local farmers to continue farming and selling products locally and regionally, to protect farmable soils, wildlife corridors and riparian zones, and to maintain the rural character of the Methow Valley while providing landowners an alternative to subdivision and development.

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