WEAN files suit against county

Whidbey Environmental Action Network filed a lawsuit alleging that Island County has violated the state’s Public Disclosure Act.

The suit, filed Friday in Skagit County Superior Court, claims that the county’s failure to provide documents in a timely manner will limit WEAN’s ability to participate in public hearings scheduled for last night and May 24.

“I’m looking for whatever they’ve got, which has been a total mystery,” WEAN spokesman Steve Erickson said.

WEAN requested the evidence used to author several ordinances related to revising the county’s Critical Areas Ordinance. In its findings of fact, the county states that “grazing by livestock occurs in pastures that may be wet part of the year,” which could mean it is a protected wetland.

In the proposed revisions to the county’s Comprehensive Plan, which outlines how the county can grow, it is alleged that a number of small farms intrude into wetland and stream buffers and their continued viability depends on being able to continue these practices. But no evidence is provided to support this claim.

In an April 26 request, WEAN asked for the evidence the county used to arrive at these, and other, claims. WEAN felt that the county’s response was unsatisfactory.

“The records requested will require some research and compiling. Our best estimate of when we will have the requested records available for your inspection will be on or before June 6, 2005,” Island County commissioner Mike Shelton wrote in a letter.

According to the suit, the county does not plan to make the records available in time for the public to be informed of the factual basis of the proposed ordinances.

“The county did not explain why there was need for research and compilation given that the documents presumably were used by the county in preparing the proposed ordinance,” the suit states.

The state’s public records law states that records should be available in a timely matter. Erickson said that the delay in providing the records is unacceptable.

“The reality is that presumably they had this information at their fingertips to write these ordinances,” Erickson said.

Shelton told a different story, however. He said that information is not readily available and that is why the rules need to be changed. The county tried to retain the use of existing land management practices, but lost a court decision because of a lack of a sufficient record to prove the need.

“Some of the stuff he is asking for we don’t have,” Shelton said. “It exists ... simply from having lived in Island County for 35 years. You can see the potential of the impact of removing (Best Management Practices) will have on people by driving down the road.”

Legal precedent exists that ordinances must be based on scientific inquiry, not speculation or surmise. “Therefore, the factual support for the findings in the draft ordinances should be readily available,” the suit alleges.

But Island County’s lawyer in the matter, who the state has provided, said that since the ordinances are in draft form, the county still has the ability to compile the facts, which it will do by June 6. The lawyer, Olympia-based John Justice, said that he was not able to comment further on the issue because of the short amount of time he has had to review the suit.

The two sides will argue their cases in Skagit County Superior Court at 9:30 a.m. Friday. Shelton said that if compelled to, the county will comply to the best of its ability, but he said he is was worried that it will not be enough to quell WEAN’s desire.

“There is no physically possible way the county is going to go out and survey every property in the rural zone and come up with a definite answer of the impacts in the critical areas,” Shelton said.

If the county is found to have violated the act, it must produce the documents by noon on May 23. WEAN can also recoup all of its legal fees associated with the challenge.

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