Council kills blueberry farm proposal

Published on Wed, Aug 14, 2013 by Brandy Kiger Shreve

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There will be no blueberries in Semiahmoo after all. 

A proposed zoning text amendment that would have allowed for limited agricultural use in the Semiahmoo uplands died on the table during the regular council meeting on August 12 after council chose not to act on the item.

“It’s my understanding that if there’s no motion, the ordinance will die,” said Blaine mayor Harry Robinson, which, when confirmed, spurred a lengthy silence from the council members. 

A vote denying the motion would have required council members to provide backing for their decision, since the land-use item had been recommended for approval by the planning commission. “Decisions on land-use items need to be based on the criteria that is set in our city codes,” said community planning director Michael Jones. “The planning commission provided a variety of reasons why it should be approved according to that criteria, so if they opted to not approve the project, they would have had to develop findings of fact that provided the basis for that denial.”

Munger Farms, one of the largest blueberry producers in the country, had requested the change to the city’s zoning to allow for agriculture on their 160 acres of land in west Blaine.

They had hoped to make use of the land in “some sort of economic fashion” until the housing market was back on its feet, said Craig Parkinson, the managing principal for Cascade Engineering, who filed the request on behalf of the farm’s owners.

Zoning texts define what can and cannot be done within certain areas of the city limits. The Munger Farms’ property is currently zoned as recreational/planned residential (RPR), an assignment that permits housing developments, single- and multi-family homes and community recreation such as golf courses.

If adopted, the proposal would have allowed property owners with more than three acres of land to engage in silviculture, horticulture or viticulture, but would not have permitted keeping  livestock, a measure community planning director Michael Jones said was key. “Animals were specifically excluded,” Jones said. “We didn’t want the odor or flies that are typically associated with the raising of livestock to be an issue.”

The non-motion followed a public hearing that had many Semiahmoo residents expressing their distaste for country living. “If I wanted to live next to a farm, I would have moved to Lynden or Ferndale,” Semiahmoo resident John Dugdale said. “If this thing is approved, and we see farming going on, who knows what the ramifications will be.” 

Michael Coltart said passing the ordinance would be in bad faith. “When we purchased our property, and I’m speaking on behalf of approximately 500 property owners in the area, we all bought according to the fact that this was under a master plan that was vetted and approved by the council,” he said. “We were under the impression that it would be housing. Blueberries are not just a temporary move.”

Parkinson said the opposition and lack of decision for the ordinance was disappointing. “Our client had already started conversations with public works about using reclaimed water,” he said. “I wish [the opponents] would have showed up six months ago to talk about this. I thought blueberries were fairly benign.”

He said that he doubted that his client would appeal the decision. “My client’s not interested in a contentious relationship with the neighbors.”

Council member Bonnie Onyon said that there were just too many unknowns at play for her to feel comfortable approving the zoning text amendment.

“I came at this with a really open mind,” she said. “And I tried to look at it as a potentially good thing, but there are too many unanswered questions and the impacts of the project are too fuzzy. Blueberries are a long-term crop and, from my understanding, take up to five years to mature. I might feel better if they were going to plant an annual crop such as corn, but with blueberries, there’s no guarantee of how long they will be farming.” 

Council member Paul Greenough said that the indefinite time frame of such a crop also gave him pause. “If this land were planted in blueberries, it would be a disincentive to build houses, and in the end would discourage growth,” he said. “And we have zero capability to enforce compliance. We may have someone who is well intentioned this year, and maybe next year, but three or four years down the road, who knows? We have no practical way of enforcing compliance.” 

Jones said it was troubling to him that the ordinance died from a lack of action. “There’s a good chance we will see this come to council again,” he said. “I think it’s likely that they have an obligation to take action on it. We’re researching it at this time.”

In other city news, the planning commission will begin looking at projected growth rates for the county and will hold a public hearing on Thursday, September 12 at 7 p.m. 

Jones also announced that Dave Gallion had resigned from the planning commission due to family commitments and that applications for the positions would be open until Tuesday, September 3. “It’s a great opportunity for someone to get involved,” he said.