YELM - Dig a hole just about anywhere on the 500-acre Schader Crown Ranch and you're likely to uncover rocks.
That fact is not lost on Judy Schader Rogers, who finds herself between a rock and a hard place with Thurston County land-use officials.
The county placed about 330 acres of the ranch in a zoning category called long-term agriculture in December 2008. Practically speaking, it means land that had been zoned one home per 5 acres is now set at one home per 20 acres.
“It basically cuts the value of the property in half,” said Rogers’ brother Bob Schader.
The Schader Crown Ranch was one of about 134 properties totaling more than 2,390 acres added to the county’s agricultural zone, largely in response to a 2005 order from the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board and 2007 state Court of Appeals ruling.
The hearings board and appeals court sided with Futurewise, a state Growth Management Act watchdog group that charged the county hadn’t done enough to identify and protect agricultural lands of commercial significance.
Before and after the county zoning decision, Rogers lobbied the county to reconsider its assessment of the family property, which was a mink farm until 2000 and now is home to about 165 beef cattle.
By definition, county long-term agricultural lands are characterized by soils that can grow commercial crops – deep, well-drained soil free of clay and rocks.
That’s not the case at Schader Crown Ranch, Rogers insists and soil studies show.
“The soil is about 2 inches thick and full of rocks,” Rogers said. “We knew the ranch was a piece of rock when my parents bought it nearly 50 years ago.”
“It’s terrible, terrible soil,” said Schader, a commercial nursery owner.
“If you tried to feed Thurston County from this farm, we’d all starve,” Rogers said.
Rogers complained to the county about the new zoning when the property showed up on a map expanding the long-term agriculture zone more than two years ago. The county removed the ranch from the proposed long-term agriculture zoning, then put it back in at the last minute.
“I don’t know why it was dropped off the map – human error,” said Scott Clark, county director of long-range planning.
When Rogers protested, county officials told her she could hire a professional soil scientist to have the property tested. Rogers said county officials told her they would take the property out of long-term agriculture zoning if the soils weren’t suitable.
The county decision to add the land to its long-term agriculture inventory to comply with the Growth Management Act was based in large part on Natural Resources Conservation Service maps that showed it to be Kapowsin silt loam – in other words, prime farmland.
The maps prepared by the arm of the federal Department of Agriculture are generally reliable but not fail-safe, NRCS officials confirmed.
“You need to ground-truth the maps,” NRCS conservationist Jeff Swotek said. “There’s a lot of soil types in Thurston County, and the maps aren’t always accurate on a specific site.”
Thurston County doesn’t have the money or resources to field-test properties, said Clark, the county’s long-range planning chief. So it’s up to property owners to hire a consultant to conduct the tests if they disagree with the county.
Rogers and her brother hired Pacific Rim Soil & Water, an Olympia-based firm on a list of soil consultants recommended by the county. In fact, Pacific Rim wrote the protocol the county uses to evaluate long-term agricultural land.
Pacific Rim concluded in an Oct. 9, 2009, report submitted to the county that the Schader Crown Ranch parcels rezoned by the county did not meet the intent of the definition of long-term agriculture because of poor soils.
“As a result, we recommend these seven parcels be removed from the LTA zoning district,” Pacific Rim soil scientist Daniel Ufnar said.
Case closed, Rogers thought. But two years later, the county hasn’t taken action on her request, despite constant pressuring by Rogers.
“They need to make a decision; I want some knowledge about what I can do with my land,” Rogers said. “I used to love this farm. Now I get a pain in my stomach when I come out here.”
County planners have been busy with other comprehensive plan amendments, Clark said. The Pacific Rim report needs to be verified by an independent third party, he said.
The earliest the county planning commission and county commissioners will consider the case is after March, Clark said.
“They have a right to be frustrated. I feel their pain,” Clark said.
However, he said, there’s no guarantee the county commissioners will rezone the property for rural housing.
“When you look at the farm from the air, you see grass growing, corrals, tractors, barns and cattle,” Clark said. “They may have made their case, but not all farms are soil-reliant.”
The soil tests cost $6,500 and 200 hours of labor, Rogers countered, adding, “Why do the soil testing if they can just ignore it?”
Rogers said the county is reluctant to pull the ranch out of the long-term agriculture inventory, fearful of repercussions from the growth-management hearings board or Futurewise. Clark denies that the 2007 compliance order is playing a role in the way the county has handled the Rogers case.
There’s a certain irony in the land-use flap with the county. Rogers said her family has no plans to develop the property.
The family is in discussions with the Natural Resources Conservation Service about participating in a program in which the federal government buys easements on grassland ranches to preserve them forever as working ranches.
One way or the other, Rogers just wants the county to rule on her appeal.
“I don’t want anything except what I had until an entirely arbitrary hand came down on my property and changed my life,” Rogers said.
John Dodge: 360-754-5444 firstname.lastname@example.org