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Bainbridge Island, Washington: A Model for Urban Agriculture

Bainbridge Island, a gem in the middle of Puget Sound and just a short ferry ride from downtown Seattle, has a rich agricultural history. The island has been home to a variety of farm uses, including strawberries, wine grapes, tree fruit and livestock, to name a few. But over the past 50 years, the island’s farmland base has declined to several hundred acres, with only 222 acres classified as agriculture for tax purposes. And with that loss, island residents have also sensed a loss of cultural and economic diversity, open space and access to locally grown food.

To stem this loss, in November of 2001 residents adopted an $8 million bond initiative to acquire key properties, including agricultural lands. Using this and other funding, the city now owns six agricultural properties totaling about 65 acres and has made it a goal to preserve one percent of the island for agriculture, or about 180 acres.

City of Bainbridge Island officials were, and are, determined to see this land not only preserved, but also kept in active and economically viable agricultural uses. They sought AFT’s guidance on how to make that happen. And last month, our Pacific Northwest field office, with the help of AFT’s Technical Assistance Services division, completed a report for the City of Bainbridge Island titled An Assessment and Recommendations for Preservation and Management of City-owned Agricultural Land [PDF, 1.38MB].

Both this report and the engagement of the city of Bainbridge Island in protecting farmland are a bit unusual. Most cities, once farmland declines within their jurisdiction, are mostly bent on planning for more intensive development. But Bainbridge Island, with a population of just over 20,000 people and a land area of about 28 square miles, is a bit different. While proximity to Seattle has brought rapid growth in recent years, the island has still managed to retain a separate identity and a much cherished quiet rural character. Its residents strongly supported the bond initiative and public opinion polls show continued strong support for the preservation of the island’s farms.

AFT’s report analyzed the key public benefits and public values sought to be preserved by the acquisition of these lands. It evaluated systems to help secure this land for the long-term future and models for protecting the agricultural properties on the island. It made recommendations that will help islanders use these lands not only to keep them safe and viable, but also to help improve the viability and long-term prospects for other neighboring farms to stay in agriculture.

We believe this project, and the admirable will of the citizens of Bainbridge Island, will be a model for other urbanizing communities around the country. And we know that future generations of islanders will be thankful for what the residents of today have done.

American Farmland Trust