Small farmers may need a plan

A committee formed after more than a thousand people flocked to public hearings on small-scale farming in Island County last spring has come up with some recommendations.

The 18-members of the Agriculture Review Committee were not entirely unified in their recommendations, however. Chairman Mike Shelton, who also serves as a county commissioner, said after six weeks and four meetings, “We’ve got somewhat of a recommendation.”

Shelton was speaking at a joint meeting Tuesday between the county commissioners, the Planning Commission and the Ag Committee, as the recommendations were explained to the public for the first time.

The issue of regulating small farming operations in areas zoned rural came up after the courts upheld a Growth Management Hearings Board decision that Island County must protect the environment from non-commercial agriculture in the rural zone. Generally this includes small hobby farms, kids raising 4-H animals, or people gardening on a small scale.

If adopted, the small farm owner in Island County would be facing more paperwork, especially if they are farming in a critical area.

Exactly how many people are farming in critical areas is not yet known, although the county is working on it. Keith Dearborn, the county’s land use attorney, said that information should be available to the Planning Commission by the end of the month.

Preliminary indications are there’s a lot of agricultural activity taking place in critical areas. Having studied more than 1,800 parcels, Dearborn said, “75 percent of the parcels overlap with critical areas.” Critical areas are generally streams or wetlands.

The Ag Committee decided that all farming operations should be treated the same, based on the intensity of use. Here are the definitions:

l Low intensity: Livestock operations with an animal unit density of less than one per acre; seasonal hay operation on wet pastures.

l Medium intensity: Livestock operations with an animal unit density of one or greater per acre; all other horticultural activities.

* High intensity: All dairy operations; livestock operations involving feed lots.

Medium and high intensity farms would need to follow Natural Resource Conservation Service Best Management Practices (BMP’s), which would replace the county’s current BMP’s, implemented through an approved Farm Management Plan.

Low intensity farming would be allowed using a checklist to show Best Management Practices are being followed. However, if the farming is taking place in a particularly critical area, such as a “high value wetland,” or salmon bearing stream or tributary, then a Farm Management Plan would be needed.

Ray Gabelein, one of the Ag Committee members, worried about the farm plan requirement. “People didn’t realize it would be required to do a farm plan,” he said at Tuesday’s meeting. “Even if you just want to cut a little bit of hay or raise a beef or two.” He expressed concern that any farm plan could be appealed, with the farmer perhaps held liable for any violations.

Gabelein’s concerns were assuaged by County Commissioner Mac McDowell, who said the county could approve “generic” farm plans at various intensities, and then the appropriate plan could be signed by the individual farmer. That way, the the county would have to defend any appeal.

Don Meehan, WSU Extension Agent, also expressed sympathy for the hobby farmer and asked for the fewest restrictions possible. “Hardly anybody is making any money, they’re doing it because they love it,” he said. “I’m with Ray (Gabelein). I want to keep things simple.”

Chairman Shelton said people shouldn’t be fearful to sign their name to a model or generic farm plan. “A guy would sign the model plan and he’s good to go,” he said, pointing out that the new regulations are required by law. “People will have to comply,” he said.

Ag Committee member Val Hillers defended the farm plan proposal, saying the committee generally “felt pretty good about the farm plans and the way it would be done.”

The committee members did agree that monitoring the quality of wetlands is an essential ingredient to farm oversight, and county officials responded that there will be money for monitoring activities. “We have to have a monitoring program,” Dearborn said.

A numbers of steps must be taken before any new regulations are put in place. The Planning Commission will hold three public hearings before deciding on a recommendation to make to the Island County Commissioners. The schedule calls for final approval in December.

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