County will not conduct future farm hearings

Facing a pending, yet unknown deadline, the Island County Planning Commission decided to not schedule any further public hearings on the controversial changes to farming rules.

The public comment period will end June 22 as originally scheduled. The commission will then act on a recommendation to the Island County Commissioners.

Keith Dearborn, Island County’s Attorney in the matter, said that the county must comply with an order from the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board that states the county can not extend exemptions to its critical areas ordinance to agricultural practices in lands zoned rural.

“There’s not really any different options,” Dearborn said. “That means that we’re going to have to make everybody who is farming in the rural area comply with the critical areas ordinance.”

This means that the opportunity to comment on the current proposed ordinances expires June 22. Other public hearings will occur on the matter, Island County Planning Director Phil Bakke said.

“The deal is there’s a need to respond to the Court of Appeals decision,” Bakke said. “The issue is when do you respond.”

Currently, farms can have a 25-foot buffer around wet pastures or type-five streams and other critical areas. Once they must comply with the critical areas ordinance, that buffer will be increased to 50 feet for category B wetlands or type-five streams.

Dearborn said that although no formal deadline has been given, he does not feel the county can delay enacting the proposed ordinances later than originally scheduled.

Even if the proposed ordinances are passed, the county will continue to build a record of the number of properties that will be effected. Studies will also take place measuring the effect the agricultural Best Management Practices have had on critical areas.

The hope is that the county can at least persuade the hearings board to grandfather existing uses so that people currently farming can continue to do so.

“But first we have to get in compliance with (the hearings board’s) order,” Dearborn said.

Island County Commissioner Mike Shelton said that building the record with fact-based information is now the priority.

“The fact that somebody doesn’t like it needs to be backed up with specific instances,” Shelton said. “All of the testimony people have given us is valuable, but now it must be field tested.”

Planning Commission Chair Bill Massey said that he was told the county was developing other options to the current proposed ordinances, but no information on what those are is available.

Massey did say that lowering the minimum lot size for rural agriculture from 10 acres to five acres is not possible.

“We hope there’d be a recommendation that balances the environmental concerns with the agricultural use,” Massey said.

Massey said that although the public comment period officially closes June 22, he does anticipate additional hearings on the issue in the future. The Board of Island County Commissioners must have a public hearing on the matter before it votes on the ordinances.

Steve Erickson, a spokesman for Whidbey Environmental Action Network, which argued that the best management practices do not adequately protect the environment, said that the county is in a hurry to approve the ordinances so they will be in compliance.

“Dearborn’s kind of in a hurry to rubber stamp the ordinance so they’d at least be in compliance,” Erickson said. “Dearborn apparently has hatched a strategy where they’re going to try and claim that because of this field work, the BMP’s are sufficient.”

Bakke said that the county is also considering adopting the proposed ordinance on an interim basis, which means it must be reviewed after six months and can then be overturned.

Shelton said that he was not sure why the ordinance was not proposed as an interim one from the beginning.

The county has not hid the fact that it will pursue other options of being able to reinstate the agricultural BMP’s. According to the ordinances, it will utilize the process of the critical areas review to collect evidence that the BMP’s are effective in protecting the critical areas.

“Based upon public input, there’s a lot of opposition to the ordinances,” Shelton said. “The latest plan is to do the internal work before we hold another public hearing.”

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