The good news is that Washington counties may utilize point systems to evaluate lands for Growth Management Act designation. However as Ferry County recently learned, the bad news is that a well-founded point-based evaluation system won’t suffice if the resulting land designations are not supported by the record and compliant with overarching GMA mandates.
The Court of Appeals determined that a principled and consistent point system can provide necessary rigor and consistency for land designations and compliance determinations that are otherwise guided by general GMA criteria. Such systems can “nourish” compliance with GMA requirements, and can be a useful tool for local governments identifying and designating lands under the GMA.
But for Ferry County, even a well-designed point system developed during more than a decade of GMA compliance proceedings was not enough. It has spent more than a decade attempting to designate Agricultural Lands of Long-Term Commercial Significance (ARL). Beginning in 2001, Futurewise challenged the county’s development of criteria, standards, and ARL designations. From 2001 to 2013, the Growth Management Hearings Board (GMHB) issued a series of orders and decided that the county’s ARL designation failed to comply with GMA requirements.
In response to that decision, the county adopted new criteria and standards for the designation of ARL, and amended its comprehensive plan ARL designation. Based on a new goal, policy, and point system, the County designated 479,373 acres of ARL, which included 478,977 acres of federal and state grazing land designated based on grazing status. The remaining 405 acres were designated as ARL based on existing long-term conservation easement.
Interestingly, no land was designated as ARL based on the point system itself, and another challenge by Futurewise was filed. This time, the GMHB determined that the county’s ARL designations complied with the GMA, but on appeal the Washington Court of Appeals now disagrees. The Court held that while the county’s criteria for designation of ARL (including the point-based system) are now acceptable, the designation of ARL lands did not comply with GMA mandates.
The Appellate Court rejected the application of the point system because 2,816 acres that qualified as ARL under the point system were excluded from ARL designation without adequate justification in the record. The Court ruled that the ARL designations may not provide adequate hay production lands to support the County’s livestock industry and that the county failed to adequately justify the exclusion of acreage that qualified under the point system.
The message is that if a point system is developed, the designations must reflect the point based system; and must still comply with overarching GMA mandates.
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