Rail bill aided by Washington Farm Bureau passes

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State lawmakers have approved relaxing restrictions on industrial development near short-line railroads in rural Eastern Washington, a move the Farm Bureau says will help farm communities.

House Bill 1504, which has yet to be signed by Gov. Jay Inslee, would allow rail-dependent industries to locate on land that may now be off-limits because of the state’s Growth Management Act. The act calls for agricultural land to be preserved and for industrial development to occur in areas with urban services.

The legislation stemmed from a dispute over industrial development in Clark County in southwest Washington. Lawmakers expanded the bill to apply to counties east of the Cascades. The bill still applies only to Clark County in Western Washington.

The bill’s most outspoken opponent, the environmental group Futurewise, argued that the legislation would lead to urban sprawl and allow farmland to be paved over for industrial development.

The Farm Bureau, however, joined business and labor groups in supporting the bill. The Washington Association of Wheat Growers also backed the bill.

“We appreciate what this bill brings to the rural areas of the state,” Farm Bureau associate director of government relations Mark Streuli said. “We understand there are times some of this rural land has to be used to facilitate getting our commodities to the short-line railroads.”

Futurewise remains concerned the bill will decrease farmland, the organization’s state policy director, Bryce Yadon, said Thursday.

“This bill is a way to de-designate farmland for other purposes,” he said. “We question why we’re taking the one thing a growing industry (agriculture) needs.”

Although some Democrats opposed the bill, it passed by a comfortable margin in the Democratic-controlled House, as well as the Republican-led Senate. The bill won final approval from the House on Wednesday.

Washington has 23 short-line railroads, including several that cater to farmers and food processors in Eastern Washington.

House Environment Committee Chairman Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Burien, said the bill will create opportunities to increase their use. “It will bring industrial development in places that need it,” he said.