Farm rules unveiled

People living in the rural zone who farm, garden or raise livestock in designated “critical areas” are facing more regulation by Island County.

An ordinance to be aired Tuesday, Oct. 25, in Oak Harbor calls for such landowners to help protect those critical areas by agreeing to certain farming practices.

For those whose small-scale farming is confined to non-critical areas, there’s no change. Go ahead and let your cow roam freely or grow potatoes in the backyard — no permission needed.

“It exempts gardens or any kind of agriculture incidental to or secondary to a residence,” said Phil Bakke, Island County’s director of planning and community development, on Thursday.

That may allay fears of many of the hundreds of people who flocked to a series of meetings last May announcing that regulation of farming in the rural area had been ordered by the state. An estimated 600 people turned out to meetings in Coupeville and Camano Island, prompted by a county notice mailed to property owners warning that people might have to stop gardening or raising 4-H animals in critical areas, generally defined as streams or wetlands.

No such alarm was sounded in the notice for the upcoming meetings on a proposed ordinance drafted in the interim by a farm committee, fine-tuned by the Planning Department, and now under consideration by the Planning Commission and Island County Commissioners.

The effort was aimed at allowing farming to continue in all areas while following state orders to protect critical areas.

Details of the plan will be presented Tuesday in Oak Harbor. Bakke said it basically breaks down small scale rural agriculture into four categories, residential, low intensity, medium intensity and high intensity.

Lower intensity farmers in critical areas would have to agree to what Bakke described as a “standard farming plan, with a checklist of protection standards.” The aim was to keep it simple, with the county generating a standard plan people could sign off on.

What Bakke calls the “standard plan plus” would apply to people farming in any of the county’s four salmon-bearing watersheds. Those are Maxwelton and Glendale on South Whidbey and Onamac and Triangle on Camano Island. These “medium intensity” farmers would be required to follow “best management practices” as described by the Natural Resource Conservation Service. Animals might have to be fenced off from streams or wetlands.

Another option for those farmers would be operating under a custom plan drawn up with the help of the Whidbey Island Conservation District.

Bakke said high intensity commercial farmers already comply with environmental regulations that apply only to them.

The new plan was first presented last Tuesday on Camano Island, where about 150 people were in the audience. That’s about a quarter of last May’s turnout, but Bakke said “it was still a plus for us.”

When it was over, Bakke concluded that “people were thinking things are reasonable.”

Lee Spears runs a small garden operation near Oak Harbor on Zylstra Road called Hummingbird Farm and Nursery, and like many small farmers he has been watching the county’s actions closely. He attended last May’s pandemonious meeting in Coupeville, which he refers to as a “fiasco.” He said he’ll try to attend next Tuesday’s meeting in Oak Harbor.

Spears is a bit worried that a county drainage ditch in the edge of his property could be declared a wetland area, in which case any required setback would take a big bite out of his gardening area of less than three acres.

But as a Texas native who grew up in a rural area outside Houston, he’s not against all regulations. He watched as his homeland was buried under housing developments, strip malls and an airport.

“I’m not opposed to any of that happening,” he said of protections being contemplated for wetlands. “But they have to leave some kind of mitigation open to you.”

He said his worst fear is that new regulations will compel people to give up farming and that the land would eventually end up in the hands of developers. To prevent that and to help the environment, he’s willing to put up with some reasonable new rules.

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