Commissioners switch roles on Island County farm program

Angie Homola - Contributed photo
Angie Homola
— image credit: Contributed photo

It seemed like role reversal among members of the Island County Board of Commissioners.

The two Democratic commissioners last month spoke in favor of retaining a county ordinance that regulates agriculture’s impact on the environment. The ordinance was adopted by a Republican-dominated board of commissioners and is currently being challenged in court by an environmental group.

The sole Republican commissioner, on the other hand, wanted the county to instead “opt in” to a  potentially expensive state program in which a new county bureaucracy would be established and the new board would draft work plans meant to balance the needs of agriculture with the environment.

The whole picture, however, is far more complex and holds many unanswered questions, especially since the commissioners waited until the last minute to decide the issue. In the end, the commissioners decided not to opt into the new Voluntary Stewardship Program by a familiar vote of 2-1.

The commissioners held the two-part special session in January to consider whether the county should “opt in” to the Voluntary Stewardship Program created by the nonpartisan William D. Ruckelshaus Center. The commissioners heard public testimony on the issue Jan. 23, which was the final day they had to opt in.

A number of citizens, as well as Republican Commissioner Kelly Emerson, complained about the board waiting until the last minute to discuss the issue. The commissioners held the meeting only after the Island County Farm Bureau requested it.

It was clear at the hearing that few people seemed excited about, or even to completely comprehend the ramifications of, either option. The Island County Farm Bureau officially supported the opt-in provision to preserve the county’s options, but a couple of farmers voiced concerns about the idea.

“You have to make a decision today and nobody really understands what the decision is going to result in,” South Whidbey resident Rufus Rose said, summing up the comments. “That’s terrible.”

The issue goes back to 2000, when the environmental group Whidbey Environmental Action Network, commonly known as WEAN, successfully challenged a county ordinance at the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board. The ordinance exempted all agriculture from wetland protections, but the board ruled that was contrary to the Growth Management Act.

Then after a huge amount of public input, including discussions with farmers and raucous public hearings, the former Republican-dominated board of commissioners in 2006 adopted an ordinance dealing with critical areas on farmland. WEAN challenged it at the hearings board and lost, then filed a lawsuit in Thurston County Superior Court. Steve Erickson, a founder of WEAN, said the group’s main concern with the ordinance is that it relies on farmers to create management plans that neither county staff members nor the public can see. As a result, he argues, there’s no way for the county to enforce the rules.

The lawsuit was stayed after the Legislature asked the William D. Ruckelshaus Center to come up with a solution for regulating critical areas — wetlands and other environmentally sensitive areas — on agricultural land.

The center finally proposed the Voluntary Stewardship Program, which would require the county to set up new watershed groups that would create work plans. “The work plans are to identify critical areas on ag lands, then develop an outreach plan to contact landowners and offer incentive programs to address the critical areas,” according to the state Conservation Commission website. The staff members said it was unclear how the county could opt out of the program in the future.

Erickson told the commissioners during the recent public hearing that he was originally “agnostic” about the opt in, but decided he was against it after further study. He said opting in would reduce the county’s options and would be expensive.

“It required huge amounts of support and the county just doesn’t have the staff and doesn’t have the money,” he said.

State officials haven’t offered to help counties pay for the program, Erickson said, though some funding has been identified from the federal government. He said the funds wouldn’t cover the county’s costs.

In addition, Erickson said that many of the people advocating for the opt-in don’t believe that agriculture causes pollution and they will use the process under the Voluntary Stewardship Program to delay any environmental protections.

“The result is going to be paralysis. The plans are going to be dysfunctional,” he said.

Len Engle, the head of the Island County Farm Bureau, read a letter from the group asking the commissioners to opt in “as a safety net.” Don Sherman, a member of the bureau, admitted that everyone is in a state of confusion over the issue, but he pointed out that citizens and officials worked long and hard on the county’s own agriculture regulations — which are “hung up in court.” He asserted that it’s really WEAN causing the delay.

Ray Gabelein, a South Whidbey farmer, also spoke in favor of the county’s regulations. He said the only reason to opt into the program would be to give the county protection in case the county lost the lawsuit to WEAN.

Dan Wood, of the Washington State Farm Bureau, encouraged the commissioners to enter the program. He argued that WEAN members are against the opt-in because they would lose their ability to negotiate with the county. Some farmers are concerned about the possibility that the county would negotiate with the group.

After the public comments, Commissioner Helen Price Johnson, a Democrat, said it didn’t really make sense for the county to opt in since it already has a critical areas ordinance.

“What is clear to me is that this legislation wasn’t created with Island County in mind,” she said.

While Commissioner Angie Homola focused on all the unresolved questions in the legislation, Commissioner Kelly Emerson, the sole Republican on the board, admitted that she’s gone “back and forth” on the issue. She said she finally decided it would be best to opt in for the reasons presented by the farm bureau.

In an interview this week, Erickson said WEAN presented a settlement proposal to the county over the lawsuit, but the commissioners turned it down. That means the lawsuit will now proceed forward.


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