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Wetlands or farm lands?

"It’s a balancing act.Property rights on the one hand; the environment on the other.That’s what Island County Commissioners tried to tell agricultural property owners Monday afternoon during a public hearing on new rules to protect critical environmental areas, including wetlands, streams and slopes.But many of the landowners in the hearing room said the county’s proposed regulations could spell the end of their farming days and, at the very least, be costly and unworkable. Meanwhile, supporters of even tougher regulations said the proposed laws are too lax and would probably lead the county toward a showdown in court.Because of the clash of opinions, the commissioners chose to delay a decision on the new laws until Nov. 15. They invited additional written public comment on the issue through Nov. 10.County officials are patching up portions of their 20-year Comprehensive Plan after the state’s Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board ruled in June that the sections would not sufficiently protect the environment. Protection of critical areas is one of the main goals of the state’s 1990 Growth Management Act, which counties are required to follow when they draw their land-use regulations. “Critical areas’’ are such things as streams, wetlands, flood hazard areas, unstable slopes and fish and wildlife habitat.TOO MUCH REGULATION?Though the vast majority of the county’s proposed critical area laws cover development, road construction and utility work, some hit home with landowners who raise crops or graze cattle and horses. The laws restrict when and where farmers can plow, store manure and graze their animals around critical areas.Some landowners, such as Mark Arnold of South Whidbey, said adding buffer zones and fencing around the wetlands on his land would make a quarter to half his 160 acres unusable and would keep his cows off the best grazing area. He said a heritage of family farming could be jeopardized by an increasing number of regulations.“This is really emotional,” Arnold told the commissioners. “That’s where you guys lose site of your decision-making process.”Roy Hagglund of Clinton said farmers have been effectively managing the land for years and should be trusted to continue rather than being run out of business by regulations.“If you get rid of all the little farms you’re going to have a hell of a lot of blackberries to pick,” he said.Joyce Fossek of Langley said that if the commissioners insisted on making land unusable, they should also be willing to stop taxing property owners for it. Taxes on wetlands should be removed entirely, she said.Keith Dearborn, the county’s outside legal consultant, said the commissioners have asked the county Assessor to take the critical area ordinances into consideration when his office determines fair market value on property.DEFYING THE ORDERWhen the commissioners first wrote the critical area rules a year ago, they heard the same complaints from farmers and ranchers. As a result, they wrote in an exemption from the regulations for agricultural operations on any land zoned as Commercial Agriculture, Rural Agriculture or Rural. Through the exemption, landowners could continue their operations as long as they used what are known as best management practices in and around critical areas. The state hearings board, however, called that a violation of the Growth Management Act and told the county to limit the exemption to only a handful of properties zoned as Commercial Agriculture.Acknowledging the farmers again, the newest version of the regulations seeks to reinstate the original exemption in defiance of the state board.“Sometimes you do have to draw the line and say your basic beliefs mean something,” County Commissioner Mac McDowell said. “I have a problem with existing, on-going uses being suddenly told they can’t do it.”Commissioner Bill Thorn, however, said he would draw the line in a different spot. Thorn said he would support regulations that exempted Commercial Ag and Rural Ag zones but not Rural-zoned land.Commissioner Mike Shelton did not commit himself to the new ordinance, but said he was concerned about too many regulations pushing people away from the rural lifestyle they’ve maintained for generations. But he cautioned the audience that future regulations to protect salmon may be even more restrictive.Doug Wirth of North Whidbey underscored Shelton’s concern. He said he is prepared to sell off his land for development if the county makes it too hard on him to keep farming.NOT ENOUGH?Some in the crowd said they want stiffer regulations, not more exemptions. Steve Erickson of the Whidbey Environmental Action Network called the wetland buffers specified in the county’s regulations “inadequate” and said that some of the language of the laws made them too flexible.Susan Meyer of the Washington State Department of Ecology also questioned the regulations, saying she doesn’t see a strong commitment by the county to monitor and enforce the rules once they are in place.“Is the county going to be adding people to its staff?” she asked the commissioners. “This worries me because I know how busy the existing staff already is.”John Graham of the Citizens Growth Management Coalition said the county is asking for trouble if it decides to defy state law and reinstate the critical area exemptions. He said there are other solutions open to small farmers and that the state hearings board is very likely to reject the ordinances again, forcing a court battle.“It’s a huge risk and expense,” he told the commissioners. “It’s almost certain to go on to the Superior Court. Why on earth do you want to do this?”The Island County Commissioners are still taking public comment on regulations that govern “critical areas’’ — environmentally sensitive regions like wetlands, streams, unstable bluffs, and fish and wildlife habitat. For information, call 679-7354. To comment, FAX 679-7381 or e-mail bicc@co.island.wa.us."

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