Island County forges ahead with ag ordinance

Island County has chosen to end a legal waiting game initially launched by the Whidbey Environmental Action Network’s appeal of the county’s agriculture ordinance.

The appeal was heard last year by the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board, which determined that the ordinance complied with state law. The board also hailed the program as a model for other jurisdictions to follow, said Planning Director Jeff Tate.

WEAN appealed the State Growth Board’s decision to the Thurston County Superior Court, but the Langley group and county-contracted attorney Keith Dearborn requested a stay pending a state Supreme Court decision that could affect the ordinance.

Since then, both sides have been waiting. And waiting.

Earlier this year, the state Supreme Court issued the long-awaited ruling in the dispute between the Swinomish Tribe and Skagit County.

Dearborn said at the June 2 commissioners’ meeting that the county’s ordinance is not only sound, but it is being used by some stage agencies as a model.

The county and WEAN had been discussing the next steps as a result of the Skagit County ruling. WEAN is filing a request for an additional stay in order to wait for the outcome of the state Legislature’s response to a University of Washington and Washington State University study expected to be released in 2010.

The county is aiming to move forward with the case in order to begin implementation of the program.

WEAN spokesperson Steve Erickson said he found the initial request “dubious.”

“We could end up in a situation where we’re all just left hanging and the decision means nothing,” he lamented at the June 2 meeting.

Legislation specifically addressing the Growth Management Act, under which the agriculture ordinance falls, could necessitate future changes, but only if the Legislature erred.

“I’m really confident that we won’t get an order to make changes,” Dearborn said.

The board agreed with Dearborn and each commissioner issued their separate recommendations for moving forward.

“If we have a model, why are we backing away from it?” Commissioner John Dean asked.

“I think it’s imperative to be able to tell our farmers what our rules are,” added Commissioner Mac McDowell.

Phil Bakke, former planning director turned county commissioner, said the ordinance was drafted with “massive public involvement.”

“This is the right ordinance,” he said. “It fits. And I think it will lead to better environmental protection.

“Protracted delays are leading to things falling through the cracks.”

Dearborn said there was “not a significant amount of work left to complete the case.”

“They’re just going through with it,” Erickson said after the meeting. “The chances are good we’ll end up in court for a hearing next fall.”

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