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Growth issues spur lawsuits

"See you in court.After years of lengthy hearings, piles of paperwork, a few hard-fought compromises and plenty of spirited rhetoric, Island County officials and members of the Whidbey Environmental Action Network are taking some of their ongoing battles over growth and land use to the next highest level.The Island County Commissioners announced this week that they will file suit in Superior Court next week challenging three recent Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board decisions. In November the board rejected key provisions of the county’s Comprehensive Plan and development regulations regarding stream and wetland buffers and ongoing agricultural activities on rural-zoned land.At the same time, WEAN spokesman Steve Erickson said his organization will likely also file a suit next week challenging another growth board ruling which gave a green light to the county’s one-home-per-five-acre density rule for the rural zone.The issues have emerged as the last points of conflict in the county’s massive and detailed Comprehensive Plan. The plan charts the course of growth and development in the county over the next 20 years and sets up codes and regulations to insure that urban sprawl is held in check and the environment is protected.Just how that is done, however, is open for debate. After the county commissioners adopted a plan and accompanying regulations in 1998, WEAN and another group, the Citizens Growth Management Coalition, appealed certain portions to the state growth board. Many of the original issues have been settled either through negotiations or through previous growth board decisions.If either party disagrees with a board decision they can either ask the board to reconsider or they can take their case up a notch to Superior Court. Among the issues the county is taking to the later step next week is how much natural space, or buffer, needs to be left between land-use activities and areas such as wet meadows and small streams. Following previous growth board rulings county officials reluctantly increased buffer size to a minimum of 50 feet but in so doing also attached several exemptions. WEAN members said the exemptions were too numerous and put water quality and wildlife at risk. The growth board agreed, and ordered the county to put 50-foot buffers around the wetlands, even along seasonal streams that may not run during certain parts of the year.The other county appeal relates to what the commissioners say is over-regulation of existing small farm and ranch operations in the county. The commissioners proposed what are called Best Management Practices, or BMPs, that are less restrictive environmental protection rules than those set by state law. Commissioner Mac McDowell said that the commissioners’ concern has been that the state laws could force small farm operators to abandon farming altogether, thus leading to more development and less rural character in the county.But WEAN and the growth board insist that running such non-commercial farms is no excuse for lesser environmental protection. The growth board rejected the county’s BMP proposal twice already. Last March, after the first rejection, the commissioners reserved the right to take their case to Superior Court if it was thrown out again.WEAN’s court appeal refers to the county’s one-home-per-five-acre development density level on lands zoned as Rural in the county plan. This particular issue has been batted back and forth for more than two years. Originally the growth board sided with WEAN and the Coalition, saying the blanket one-in-five ran contrary to the “variety of rural densities” required by the state’s Growth Management Act, the blueprint for growth plans. But the county has held fast to the concept, saying there was no logical pattern of large lots remaining in the county to justify limiting density on some and not others.Erickson said breaking up all rural land into five-acre development bundles will cause irreparable harm to wildlife habitat and rural character.“We’re not going to quietly go away on this one,” he said. "

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