The final version of the Flood Risk Memo is available here: Flood Risk Memo. This document examines the many sources of flood risk in the Clear Creek area, and describes some actions that would increase or decrease flood risk.
The review process was lengthy and intensive and involved incorporation of input from dozens of individuals- thank you to everyone who took the time to read and thoroughly review this memo, including residents and farmers in the community, Drainage District 10 commissioners, Pierce County staff, and representatives of habitat interests.
A conservation easement is a voluntary legal agreement made between a landowner and a conservation nonprofit or government body. Agricultural conservation easements permanently protect farmland from future development while ensuring it remains available for agricultural production. The easement does this by permanently removing development rights, prohibiting incompatible uses (industrial and commercial), and protecting the property’s agricultural values, including the soils, water rights, and open space.
Washington State’s Conservation Easement Enabling Statuses (Washington Rev. Code 84.34.200 to 84.34.250) recognizes the public benefit in the preservation of open space and allows for the use and public funding of conservation easements to protect this public benefit.
RCW 84.34.200: “The legislature finds that the haphazard growth and spread of urban development is encroaching upon, or eliminating, numerous open areas and spaces of varied size and character, including many devoted to agriculture, the cultivation of timber, and other productive activities, and many others having significant recreational, social, scenic, or esthetic values. Such areas and spaces, if preserved and maintained in their present open state, would constitute important assets to existing and impending urban and metropolitan development, at the same time that they would continue to contribute to the welfare and well-being of the citizens of the state as a whole. The acquisition of interests or rights in real property for the preservation of such open spaces and areas constitutes a public purpose for which public funds may properly be expended or advanced.”
Because conservation easements involve private negotiations between a landowner and an easement holding entity, those negotiations are typically handled with care to protect any sensitive landowner information and respect privacy during negotiations. Many elements of the conservation easement process are public record however, including grant applications to public agencies for easement funding, finalized transactions and recorded acquisition documents, and public and educational events hosted on protected properties after closing.
How much is a conservation easement worth? Who is compensated for an easement?
The value of a conservation easement is determined by an appraisal, which considers the value of the property and its development rights according to the “highest and best use” of the property. The value of an agricultural conservation easement is the fair market value of the property minus its agricultural value, as determined by a qualified appraiser. In general, agreements that are more restrictive have a higher value. If the easement is being purchased by a land trust or government entity, the landowner is compensated cash through escrow for appraised value of the conservation easement. If the easement is being donated to a land trust, the appraised value of the conservation easement can be used as a basis for the landowner to claim income tax incentives on a charitable contribution. For more information on the tax incentives of donating a conservation easement, please see here.
What is in a conservation easement? What is allowed and what is restricted?
The management and stewardship of easements are a perpetual responsibility and involve additional costs to the holding entity. Government agencies, which are the primary funders of easements through public grants, require certain restrictions and management. PCC Farmland Trust [holding entities] has high respect for private landowner rights when managing easements, and works closely with landowners and tenants. Perpetual responsibilities and costs of holding easements include:
enforcement costs of violations,
natural resource management through stewardship planning,
and opportunities for educational events (which are negotiated with landowners on a case-by-case basis and are not a requirement of the easement).
Land Trusts, County Government, Conservation Districts or State and Federal Government can hold easements. Land Trusts and County Governments are the most common holders of easements. All easement holders work under the same base set of legal standards, public benefit requirements, private benefit prohibitions, and funding requirements.
Conservation easement projects are prioritized by a number of factors. For agricultural conservation easements, most public funding sources agree on the key indicators of long-term agricultural value and viability – prime soils, water availability, on-site infrastructure, historical productivity, market access, proximity to other agricultural lands, and proximity to other protected open space, among others. In addition, projects are also prioritized by potential threat of conversion, as well as the general open space benefits (including water quality, wildlife habitat, and scenic views). In Pierce County, the members of the Strategic Conservation Partnership (SCP) partnered with the Pierce County Ag Roundtable to conduct a GIS-based prioritization of farmland protection opportunities in Pierce County; based on a set of farmland quality indicators (soils, location, etc.) and threat indicators (pending plats, proximity to urban growth boundaries). This prioritization is used by the SCP as a guide for landowner outreach and evaluation of farmland conservation opportunities in Pierce County.
A land trust or other conservation partner must undertake many steps before it can purchase an easement, including conducting a site assessment, securing of public funds, conducting acquisition and liability due diligence, and completing title review and baseline documentation. Because easements are primarily funded through public grants, which are available on either an annual or a biennial basis, it typically takes 2 years or more for a land trust or conservation partner to purchase an easement.
Can a landowner sell a conserved property? What happens to the easement?
Because easements are tied to the property and not the landowner, landowners can sell their conserved property and the property will continue to be protected by the conservation easement. Any future landowner is responsible for upholding the conservation easement.
Can easements change after they’ve been agreed to?
Easements are not meant to change over time. They are written to be perpetual legal agreements. There are enforcement and amendment processes described in the easement for situations when an easement needs to be amended. Anytime an easement is amended there needs to be a net conservation benefit from the amendment. An easement cannot be amended without agreement of the current landowner.
What is the value of an easement when development is restricted by zoning, like in a floodplain?
When valuing a conservation easement, an appraiser takes into account the development pressure and potential uses of a property. Depending on zoning, a limited amount of development may still be allowed, making a conservation easement hold some value. Typically greater development pressure will result in a higher easement value.
Although PCC Farmland Trust places a strong emphasis on keeping farmland actively farmed, the public benefit test required of an easement is met by the land staying as “open space”. In general, requiring a landowner to keep a property in production is a sticky issue. Given the way that easements function legally, they are more effective as a tool to prohibit a certain activity, than to require a certain activity to happen. While it is difficult to require conserved land to be farmed, PCC Farmland Trust’s easement does incorporate a number of provisions to encourage continued agricultural use, including provisions requiring current use enrollment, maintenance of water rights and open fields, and limitations supporting long-term affordability.
The Fifth TAG meeting took place at the Puyallup Library on February 1st, 2017.
Cynthia Krass, Executive Director of Snoqualmie Valley Watershed Improvement District (SVWID) presented on the history of the SVWID and its current work. Challenges facing agriculture in the area include limited water rights and drainage problems. The creation of the SVWID was a response to a need for more formal and unified representation and management to address both irrigation and drainage issues. Irrigation districts have more power than other special purpose districts and, unlike drainage districts, irrigation districts can address both drainage and irrigation.
We also discussed the Flood Risk Memo (final memo will be completed by early March), and had a discussion on conservation easements led by PCC Farmland Trust staff and Diane Marcus-Jones of Pierce County’s Planning and Land Services.
The Farming in the Floodplain Project, led by PCC Farmland Trust, has partnered with the Pierce Conservation District to explore possibilities for a large-scale planting project in the Clear Creek area. We are scoping out the feasibility of planting up to 6 acres of plants all along Nancy’s Ditch. The goal is to use native plants to shade out invasive plants (such as reed canarygrass and elodea) in the ditch. The reduction of ditch-clogging invasive plants will improve the flow of water throughout the ditch and improve drainage for agriculture, and also reduce longer-term maintenance needs.
This project has garnered vocal support from many partners, including residential and agricultural landowners, Drainage District 10 Commissioners, folks representing habitat interests, as well as County staff from Pierce County’s agricultural program and Surface Water Management.
We are hard at work exploring and planning this project, and our Landowner Engagement consultant will continue reaching out to area residents to describe the project and assess interest. Support for the project will come from a mix of County dollars, Farming in the Floodplain Project funds, and additional outside sources.
We will share more information as we are able to! Please contact us if you have any questions.
The Sediment Memo documents what information is known about sediment in the four tributaries of Clear Creek- Canyon, Clear, Swan, and Squally Creeks. It also summarizes what is known about sediment in the Puyallup River, based on a presentation by Kris Jaeger of USGS on November 2, 2016.
The agricultural community in the area requested more information about sediment, in order to increase understanding of current and future sediment regimes, how sediment affects flooding and drainage, and how an earthen berm may impact sedimentation. This memo is based on several conversations with experts, published data, and a presentation and discussion from the 4th TAG meeting.
The fourth meeting of the Technical Advisory Group (TAG) for the Farming in the Floodplain Project (FFP) was held on November 2, 2016 at the Puyallup Library. Kris Jaeger from USGS presented on sediment from the Puyallup, and Spencer Easton from ESA (our technical contractor) presented on sediment from the Clear Creek tributaries. There was also a discussion of the Drainage Inventory Preliminary Findings Memo. A full report of the meeting can be found here: TAG 4 Report
Our next TAG meeting will be in early February. We will discuss conservation easements, the Flood Risk memo that ESA is currently drafting, and hear from Cynthia Krass, the Executive Director of the Snoqualmie Valley Watershed Improvement District, who will discuss the efforts of farmers in the valley to organize around drainage and water rights.
The initial fieldwork for the Drainage Inventory was completed by ESA in September and October 2016. ESA will be analyzing the data and findings and conducting more field work after an intensive rainfall. In March, we will distribute a draft of the final Memo for review.
During the last 9 months, we have heard from many agricultural landowners, farmers, and growers in the area through one-on-one discussions, Technical Advisory Group meetings, and informal conversations. This research resulted in the Existing Conditions Report, and informed the research and work plan for the next 12 months, ending in June 2017.
This work plan was the result of many discussions with farmers and growers in the Clear Creek area. Issues important to the agricultural community, including some expressed by the Clear Creek Farmer’s Collective, were critical in identifying and prioritizing how to proceed with research and on-the-ground work in the coming year. We are immensely grateful to farmers for their time spent in reviewing both the Existing Conditions Report and several previous versions of the work plan- this helps us ensure that work completed under this Floodplains by Design grant directly supports the long-term agricultural viability of the Clear Creek area.
The Farming in the Floodplain Project works hard to be flexible and responsive to the needs of the agricultural community, and respond to new challenges and opportunities as they arise. With that in mind the Research Plan and accompanying Timeline are subject to change. As always, contact us if you have any comments or questions.
In late August, Washington Conservation Corps crew members and the community volunteers, led by Loren Paschich, completed work clearing out reed canarygrass from Canyon Creek (upstream of Clear Creek) from 52nd about 1600 feet northwest. Loren’s team spent most of the summer clearing blackberry and thick grass along the drainage easement, which allowed the WCC crews to efficiently work within the creek. While the crew worked on the creek, Loren and his team also performed maintenance on Nancy’s Ditch, parts of South Ditch, and on the northwest portion of the creek.
Drainage District 10 is working on a maintenance plan for the coming year to build on these efforts. This month, the Farming in the Floodplain Project technical contractors, ESA, has a field crew performing a drainage inventory on Clear Creek, Canyon Creek, and the drainage ditches. Thank you to the many landowners who have assisted with access to the ditches!
On September 20th, the technical contractor, ESA, will have a field team in the area working on a drainage inventory. Work will continue through September 28th. This work is expected to help the agricultural community and Drainage District 10 in a number of ways, including:
Providing a more comprehensive understanding of how the drainage system (not just the parts owned by the drainage district) works;
Providing information that can help with planning of future maintenance activities and that could help fill out permits (though we will not provide permit-level survey data);
Will make recommendations for needed maintenance activities; and
Will provide a baseline for existing conditions so that the County’s proposed project and other future planning and project efforts can be appropriately evaluated for their impacts or improvements to drainage.
We will be reaching out to landowners in advance of this work to discuss any questions you might have and in some cases, request your permission to access the drainage ditches adjacent to your property.
A preliminary report will be made available in late Fall.