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News / Clark County News

Worries take root at Heritage Farm in Hazel Dell

Advocates fear loss of historic property’s mission as Clark County considers budget

By Jack Heffernan, Columbian county government and small cities reporter
Published: January 18, 2020, 6:00am
6 Photos
Sharon Kenoski, left, weeds under soggy conditions in one of her two plots in the 78th Street Heritage Farm community gardens on Monday morning.
Sharon Kenoski, left, weeds under soggy conditions in one of her two plots in the 78th Street Heritage Farm community gardens on Monday morning. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Concerns have been raised surrounding the ongoing master plan for the 78th Street Heritage Farm, but Clark County officials are pushing back against claims that the county might turn its back on the farm.

The master plan for the 79-acre, historic farm in Hazel Dell — just west of Northeast 25th Avenue — was last updated in 2010. The county originally hoped to update the plan by June, but the process is continuing more than a year after it started.

The Clark County Council has expressed a strong desire for the farm to become more financially independent, easing the burden on the county’s general fund. In the meantime, whispers that the county may seek to sell part or all of the site for uses other than agriculture or historic preservation have persisted.

“Nobody’s talking about selling any part of this farm,” Council Chair Eileen Quiring said during a Jan. 8 work session inside a room packed with spectators.

The 78th Street Heritage Farm was founded in the 1870s as a poor farm, a county social welfare mechanism before state and federal programs were established in the 1930s. In 1949, Washington State University turned the two-story building and surrounding land into a research station, where agricultural scientists developed and tested crops.

Sharon Kenoski, who has lived on 66th Street near the farm since 1990, is one of its many vocal advocates. She recalled a time when neighbors were concerned about the property being sold to a buyer that would not have used it for its current purposes.

“The entire community really stepped up,” Kenoski said. “People really care about the farm.”

The property, which features historic buildings, wetlands and wells, was returned to the county in 2008, and it now houses the WSU Clark County Extension office, community gardens and other gardens.

The farm has a total of 22 programs and projects. Numerous organizations, including Clark County Food Bank, Master Gardener Foundation and Partners in Careers’ veterans farming program use the site.

“We find it to be a very collaborative spot for helping food insecurity,” said Sharon Pesut, executive director of Partners in Careers. “For our veterans, it’s a very peaceful place.”

Food produced through the program is donated to the food bank and other organizations committed to fighting hunger.

“That wouldn’t happen if we just had some piece of ground by itself somewhere,” Pesut said.

The county established its first master plan for the site in 2010. Included in the plan were several guiding principles: celebrate agricultural heritage, maintain WSU’s presence, promote agriculture, support agricultural research, enhance community wellness, promote volunteerism and offer access to the community for various resources.

Since the 2010 update, the site’s boundaries were adjusted to accommodate a planned expansion of Hazel Dell Community Park, which borders the farm to the south. A new parking lot, greenhouse and a winding interpretive trial — with 10 stations showcasing the site’s history — have been added.

As part of an update to the plan, and after public input, the Heritage Farm Advisory Committee developed several recommendations. The most tangible would re-direct the interpretive trail around the site, rather than through it, to prevent it from interrupting farm work and other uses.

The recommendations also seek to reduce the county’s contributions to the farm, which totaled $564,575 in 2018. When the plan is finalized, it may call for relocating certain uses, creating public-private partnerships and offering flex space for lease.

The county parks department has also proposed moving some offices there, County Councilor Gary Medvigy said.

“There are so many good uses out there that could amplify the benefit to the public and, perhaps at the same time, be more sustainable financially,” Medvigy said at the work session before asking a rhetorical question. “How does that get put into place?”

‘Vulnerable piece of land’

During the work session, the council discussed several revenue-generating options, including a regular farmers market, better public access and farm-to-table events. Quiring also broached the possibility of opening part of the property to businesses.

“I’m throwing that out there, because I think we should brainstorm about it, ” Quiring said. “We could require or ask them to have it blend … in the context of the farm and a heritage farm and a historical farm and just have it enhance it.”

Kenoski said she opposes any updates that aren’t related to the farm or its history.

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“That’s not the purpose of the farm,” Kenoski said. “I don’t want any of it to be leased off to businesses.”

The suggestions remain loose, but they’ve also sparked letters to the editor, emails to councilors and suspicions about the county’s intentions. The process was delayed over the summer, which is attributable to a staff turnover — including a new parks manager — and a lack of resources at the time, said Magan Reed, spokeswoman for Clark County Public Works.

Still, the delay caused further suspicion, Kenoski said. “That concerned me because of what happened in the past.”

At the moment, the county doesn’t appear to have an appetite to sell portions of the property or dramatically change it.

“People are reacting to that because they feel it’s a very vulnerable piece of land and part of our agricultural history,” said Sandy Brown, chair of the Heritage Farm Advisory Committee. “I think it’s refreshing to see people rally around something like that.”

At the work session, the council asked county staff to formulate specific options for management and income at the farm. The firmer suggestions will be presented to the council and the public, Reed said.

“If we say that we’re a county that values agriculture, let’s find ways to really push that forward and extend it, and I see this property as a great way for us to continue what’s being done there and also, possibly, grow it,” Councilor Temple Lentz said at the work session.

When a plan is adopted, applications for grants at the farm — totaling $786,855 in 2018 — will have a higher chance of being successful. Depending on what kinds of assurances the plan offers to preserve the site, it also could put some concerns to rest.

“I can’t be optimistic until it gets approved,” Kenoski said. “If we don’t protect it now, there will be continual pressure to ease pressure on the general fund.”

Columbian county government and small cities reporter