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Burn ban kindles dispute

The wording of the burn ordinance adopted by the Island County Board of Commissioners only a few weeks back does not jibe with current state law, and needs to be changed.

The question is: Changed to what?

At Monday’s regular staff meeting, commissioners Mac McDowell and Bill Thorn sparred over the exact dollar amount to be affixed to fines issued for improper residential burning practices.

Up to this point, the ordinance placed the question of how much individual fines would cost violators in the hands of Fred Wefer, the fire marshall for both Island and Skagit counties. The problem is that the ordinance — which allowed Wefer to assess fines for “up to” a maximum of $250 — ran against an existing state regulation that calls for a set amount, not to be deviated from by the enforcing officer.

McDowell maintained that “a fine of $250 is ridiculous for that type of event.” He suggested that the penalty for improper burning of yard waste “should be no more than a parking ticket,” especially when so few residents are aware of the ordinance.

“The lion’s share of any violation is going to be people who have no idea that you need a permit,” McDowell said in an interview on Tuesday.

Thorn, however, said that he could not agree to a fine maximum that sinks below $200, because anything else will not succeed in getting people’s attention.

“I think that for our warden to have the necessary authority, we need to give him the tools that will create that authority,” Thorn said during an interview.

He added that he doesn’t expect the fine to apply to first-time offenders, and that the primary goal of the county is not to punish folks but rather to bring residents up to speed on the new burning ordinance.

Regarding the $250 fine, Thorn said that it’s going to be “repeat or egregious offenders” who are impacted by that number, not citizens who are merely unaware of the law.

McDowell called the idea of fining anybody $250 for improper burning “mind boggling.” He said that even a $25 fine would accomplish the same goal.

“Most people follow the law,” McDowell said. “It seems pretty onerous to me, the idea that somehow a smaller fine won’t have the same effect.”

He called the maximum fine requirement “big government at its worst,” adding that Island County has gotten along just fine without any burn permit requirements until very recently.

“My preference would be for the state legislature to get rid of this crazy law,” McDowell said. “I see no benefit from it.” He said that he would prefer a nominal fine amount, perhaps set at twice the current permitting cost, which is $20.

By a 2 to 1 vote (with Thorn dissenting), McDowell and MIke Shelton moved to set a public hearing for further discussion of the newly-proposed maximum fine amount, which McDowell moved to set at $150.

The hearing is scheduled for Monday, Nov. 26 at 3 p.m. in the County Courthouse Annex in Coupeville.

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