Benton County commissioners Tuesday approved a request from Kennewick officials to add 1,263 acres to the city's urban growth area for industrial development, hailing the proposal as a promising economic boost for the area.
"I think this is just an outstanding opportunity for Kennewick to go forward, to create extra jobs and to try to fill those jobs that are going to be lost and have been lost here at Hanford," said Commissioner Shon Small before the 3-0 vote.
The approval came during the commissioners' first meeting of the year. It won't be finalized until the three-member board approves written findings and conclusions reflecting the decision.
The written findings will be drafted in the next few weeks and presented to commissioners for consideration at their Jan. 28 meeting.
After Tuesday's vote, Kennewick City Manager Marie Mosley said, "I'm excited. This is a great opportunity for our community."
The land is south of Interstate 82 and west of Highway 395. It's been designated as agriculture land of long-term significance. But it's not irrigated and isn't actively being farmed.
The majority landowner said it's no longer profitable as farmland. "There's been 40 years of failures of farmers trying to farm that property," John Christensen told commissioners.
He said he and fellow landowners have turned to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Conservation Reserve Program, in which land is taken out of farm production in exchange for a yearly payment. (The idea behind the program is to restore land cover to improve the environment).
But Christensen said the program is "on its last legs" and by year's end most of the 1,263 acres will be out. "That means this land is just going to be idle land," he told commissioners Tuesday.
Several other people also spoke about the proposal during Tuesday's meeting, with almost all expressing support. Carl Adrian, president and CEO of the Tri-City Development Council, or TRIDEC, said the large swath of land, with its location near the busy interstate, is "truly unique in the Tri-City area" and will make the area more attractive to potential industrial clients.
The proposal has drawn opposition, including from the statewide land-use advocacy group Futurewise, which has argued that the city already has enough land for future growth and the proposed expansion would mean the unnecessary loss of valuable farmland. The group says the proposal is inconsistent with state growth management law and the county comprehensive plan.
The state Department of Commerce also has raised concerns. Bruce Hunt, who works in growth management services for the agency, told commissioners Tuesday that "agricultural land is vital to Washington state and its economy, and the conservation and stability of agricultural land, such as the area south of I-82...is of statewide importance." He added that, "the protection of our ag land and ag industry is good economic policy."
Kennewick officials said the city has a shortage of land for industrial development, and the 1,263-acre site -- large enough to offer flexibility in terms of parcel size -- is ideal for that purpose. Today, the city's largest vacant industrial parcel is 17 acres.
The city has money budgeted for extending utility infrastructure to the expansion area, and the state also has allocated some money for infrastructure work.
Kennewick Mayor Steve Young told commissioners that 1,000-plus jobs could come as a result of the expansion. "It's a prime location. It's perfect (for) creating revenue for this state, for this county and for our city. It's an opportunity to wean ourselves off the Hanford site," he said.
In a memo to commissioners, county staff wrote that the soils at the site haven't changed since the land was designated years ago as having long-term commercial agriculture significance.
But some other conditions have, including annexation of property next to and north of the site and transportation improvements that make the area more accessible.
Commissioner Jim Beaver, board chairman, said he feels there's still an "iron curtain" at Snoqualmie Pass, with jobs created on the other side of the state, but this side not viewed as an economic engine.
"Efforts from the city of Kennewick and the city of Richland and jurisdictions of Benton County trying to create jobs here (are) amazing to me," he said.
"We have an unbelievable hurdle to get over here as a county and as cities. It's huge," he said. "...We have to get it done by ourselves."
Once commissioners finalize the urban growth expansion decision, there will be a window for appeal.
-- Sara Schilling: 582-1529; email@example.com; Twitter: @saraTCHerald