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Agricultural areas threatened

An environmental group is seeking to eliminate the exemption offered to agricultural lands from the county’s critical areas ordinance.

Whidbey Environmental Action Network submitted a letter Tuesday to a state hearings board asking for financial sanctions and forcing agricultural practices to comply with the ordinance.

In the letter, WEAN asked to “file a formal motion and supporting memorandum for invalidity of the existing ordinance provisions exempting ‘existing and ongoing’ agricultural activities in all zones from the (critical areas ordinance).”

This means that any agricultural practices within a protected environmental feature such as a wetland or a small stream will no longer be allowed.

“It’ll be six years from now and we still won’t have any protection for critical areas,” WEAN spokesman Steve Erickson said, referring to the time he could spend trying to increase protection in such areas.

Last month, the Washington State Supreme Court denied an Island County appeal to allow farming under a set of best management practices, which county officials say protect the environment as well as the critical areas ordinance while still allowing farming activities.

Beginning next January, properties on rural-zoned lands with critical areas present must obey the county’s critical areas ordinance, which mandates the protection of environmentally sensitive areas. This means that people with small streams through a hay field must have a 50-foot setback instead of the current 25 feet. If a pasture has a spot that does not dry up, it can be classified as a wet pasture, resulting in all agricultural practices on that pasture ceasing.

Island County Planning Director Phil Bakke said he is disappointed with WEAN’s request.

“I don’t understand how we could go to the farmers that have planted or who have their livestock out to pasture and tell them it has to end,” Bakke said.

“How do we handle that? Do we tell them, ‘Sorry, your livestock has to be destroyed?’”

The Island County Planning Commission will discuss the proposed rule changes at a May 24 public meeting at the Coupeville Elementary School.

Erickson said that WEAN is pursuing the elimination of the exemptions because it is the only option the county has left WEAN with.

“This seems to be the only way to get them to truly comply (with the Growth Management Act),” Erickson said. “This is what we think it’s going to take for the commissioners to do this for real.”

Island County Commissioner Mike Shelton said that the motion is a sign of what WEAN’s intentions have been all along.

“This is so wrong for Island County,” he said. “It is wrong for the culture of the county. We will fight this to the fullest extent of the law.”

The Island County Planning office estimates that 80,000 acres are zoned rural and approximately 10,000 acres are in the commercial or rural agriculture zones. What is unknown, however, is the extent to which farming is prevalent on those lands within critical areas.

Currently, the number of wetlands is also largely unknown. Officials from the planning department, as well as WEAN, feel that a number of wetlands exist that have not been mapped.

WEAN is basing its claim for sanctions on the idea that Island County is dragging its feet in implementing the new codes. As part of its critical areas ordinance update, the county will be trying to rehash the rural exemption.

Shelton said that it is the county’s intent to build a sufficient record to justify the inclusion of the exemption in the updated ordinance.

“To that, I would say, ‘Steve, you are absolutely correct,’ “ Shelton said. “We’re going to build that record, there’s no question about that.”

You can reach News-Times reporter Eric Berto at eberto@whidbeynewstimes.com

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