Around the country, citrus groves, cotton fields and apple orchards have been plowed under to feed America's thirst for land. In the past three decades, cities like Spokane have seen growth increasing around the margins, where suburbs and exurbs entice residents with box stores, strip malls and bigger houses.
Sprawl isn't just bad for farms and forests: Living in a sprawling suburb versus a compact city makes you less healthy, according to a recent article in the medical journal Public Health. And places like Seattle see the average person spending the equivalent of eight days a year commuting to work in private vehicles, according to the U.S. Census.
Those dairies, alfalfa fields and apple groves have made way for subdivisions, where the average size of the home is 63 percent larger than the American home was 30 years ago.
"When your largest industry is agriculture, farmland conversion hits your community in its pocket book," says Kitty Klitzke, the Eastern Washington field organizer for Futurewise (formerly 1000 Friends of Washington), a grassroots group that advocates better growth management. "We tie our work to real local problems and concerns. Eastern Washington residents care about farms being paved over for strip malls."
To see what kind of food is being produced in the Inland Northwest, Futurewise is holding the Feast with Friends benefit at the MAC on Wednesday. (For details, see page 33.)
In this time of Michael Pollan's message about "the omnivore's dilemma," Futurewise is getting involved in planning and zoning as a way to strategize against losing more farmland -- and as a way to combat global warming.
"We do this work because agriculture is an important part of our state and local economies," Klitzke adds. "Farming and food and agricultural product processing combined make up the largest employer in Washington State and in many Eastern Washington counties."
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & group like Futurewise is a smart-growth politician's best resource, pushing counties, through citizen action and sometimes through legal avenues, to follow smart growth and incorporate anti-sprawl measures in order to protect working agriculture and forest lands.
Futurewise wants to support such efforts in the form of workshops, and all the staff at Futurewise intone the same belief that giving local residents and property owners the tools they need to participate effectively is the key to stopping sprawl and encouraging developers to build smart communities.
"Futurewise protects more acres of working farms than any other organization in Washington state," says Aisling Kerins, Futurewise's executive director. "In the last decade, we have protected hundreds of thousands of acres of Eastern Washington farmland. In the 2007 legislature, we supported a bill to strengthen Washington's 'right to farm' law and funding to help keep farmers on the land."
Like it or not, Washington is part of the concentrated crescent of growth that cuts a swath from Texas through the Southwest and northward along the Pacific Coast. Development, once centered on timber, mining and agriculture, is now built around trade, immigration, leisure industries, electronic and defense manufacturing.
Those winds of change led to the creation of Futurewise in 1990; at the same time the state adopted a strong growth management system that applies to counties of more than 50,000 residents. Previously, land-use regulation was at the discretion of localities, and in the 1980s, counties like Skamania decided to live without zoning or growth management regulations altogether. Despite the laws, there's still a great need for Futurewise to pursue its stated mission: "To promote healthy communities and cities while protecting farmland, forests and shorelines today and for future generations."
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & ll first-year planners learn the axiom "pavement is permanent," and Tim Trohimovich, planning director for Futurewise, says that makes the stakes very high as the group's members and local partners seem to keep butting up against the same bad proposals again and again.
"Washington's liberal vesting laws make this job more difficult," says Trohimovich. "Even if a proposal is found to violate the Growth Management Act, a developer who files an application while an appeal of a plan is pending can still get the right to pave over a working farm if the decision does not come quickly enough."
Rather than pour more pavement, we should live with the pavement we have, says Kaleen Cottingham, state policy director for Futurewise. "Better planning results in reduced vehicle miles traveled through more compact communities, better facilities for bike travel, more walkable communities and better linkages to transit. Futurewise is advocating that the State Climate Advisory Team include these measures in their recommendations for the 2008 legislative session."
It's an uphill battle, with county commissioners and many state officials stuck in a 1950s "grow, grow, grow" mentality.
That attitude was reflected famously by Linda Chapin, a former Orange County (Florida) Commissioner, who told National Geographic: "Just because we've ruined 90 percent of everything doesn't mean we can't do wonderful things with the remaining 10 percent."
That's not a place anybody wants Washington to find itself in. And that brings us back to the need to manage growth, something Futurewise is betting the citizens of Spokane County -- and all the other 38 counties in the state -- are ready to get behind like never before.
For more information, go to www.futurewise.org.