News

Farm meeting riles nerves

In a scene that more resembled Woodstock than a public meeting about land-use regulations, hundreds of people poured into Coupeville Tuesday night to discuss the future of farming in Island County.

After years of back and forth court rulings, the county must now enact new ordinances increasing the protections offered to the environment on land that is zoned rural.

The ruling affects only those in the rural zone who have an agricultural operation that impacts critical areas, such as wetlands or streams, and their buffers.

Coupeville resident Len Engle said that only 10 of his 60 acres would be available to farming if the ordinances are allowed to pass.

“I don’t think we’ve hurt the land in the last 153 years,” he said to hearty applause.

Engle is the fourth generation to farm his family’s land in Coupeville.

But Engle’s comments were not unique. Scores of farmers, livestock owners and hobby farmers marched to the podium to wax about the effects the new ordinances would have.

According to the proposed ordinance, existing agriculture in all zones except commercial and rural agriculture must comply with the county’s critical areas ordinance. This means that setbacks around protected areas will increase to at least 50 feet.

Under current regulations, most farms have a 25-foot buffer for wetlands and type-five streams. That will increase to 50 feet beginning Jan. 1 of next year.

State Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen attended this meeting to hear the concerns of the people. As one of the principal authors of the Growth Management Act, which required the development of the critical areas ordinance, she took a lot of criticism from people that spoke.

“The GMA was designed to preserve the rural character,” Haugen said in a Wednesday interview. “It’s being interpreted totally inaccurately. Extremists at both ends are using it to their advantage.”

Haugen accused Island County of not relating the facts to its citizens in order to rile them up.

“It’s almost like, ‘The sky is falling, the sky is falling,’” she said. “The county is blowing this totally out of proportion. Probably less than 10 percent of the people that spoke will be affected by this.”

Indeed, some misinformation was evident when people spoke. One woman spoke of how the county’s roads would need to be closed because of the drainage ditches that parallel them.

In fact, most man-made ditches and ponds are not regulated as a critical area.

The county also participated in disseminating information that technically was not correct. Island County Planning Director Phil Bakke was attempting to explain what a wet meadow is to the audience.

He said that if during the rainy season, a 12-inch deep hole is dug and water is present, then that is a characteristic. In fact, the delineation of a wet pasture can occur any time during the growing season, which runs 10 months out of the year.

Bakke said that overall, the meeting went relatively smooth.

“We felt like we got a number of people testifying that were striking at the issue,” he said.

The testimony raised some options that the county has not yet considered, but Bakke would not elaborate on what those were.

One option is extending a tax-reduction program that is available to commercial farmers to smaller-scale farms, which members of the Whidbey Environmental Action Network said has been proposed in the past. The county blames WEAN for the legal decisions that resulted in the new restrictions.

“WEAN supports agriculture in Island County,” WEAN board member Fred Giesler said. “WEAN has requested that Island County allow rural agriculture zoning of properties that are five acres or more. But the county has rebuffed our proposal.”

The emotions ran high during the meeting. Numerous people shed tears when they discussed the possibility of losing access to some of their property. Others chose to use the opportunity to vent.

Oak Harbor resident Dan MacIndoe launched into a tirade that roused the audience out of its slumber nearly three hours into the meeting.

“I call this a fist down your throat, and I don’t like it,” he bellowed.

MacIndoe said that WEAN has exercised what he deemed “power over other people’s property,” or POOPP for short. During his comments, he pleaded for Gov. Christine Gregoire’s assistance in the matter.

“Gov. Gregoire, we’ve got a problem,” he said. “So get down here and fix this as fast as you’ve raised our taxes.”

Perhaps the clearest moment came in the form of youth. Eleven-year-old Heather Dixon spoke about how the new rules would affect her horse.

“We don’t usually put our horse in flooded fields and wetlands — it’s not a smart thing to do,” she said. “How can you not plant on a wetland if you can develop 10 or 20 houses on a similar piece of property. I just don’t get it.”

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

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