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Prepare to be regulated

Approximately 2,500 Island County residents identified in a “windshield survey” will be among the first regulated by the county’s new critical areas land use rules once they are adopted by the commissioners.

After a summer and fall of emotional meetings pitting small farmers against proposed regulations, the critical areas ordinance is nearing completion.

The commissioners have scheduled only one hearing on the issue, and it’s set for 3 p.m., Monday, Jan. 23 at North Whidbey Middle School in Oak Harbor.

The commissioners had hoped to adopt the ordinance by the end of January, but that schedule was delayed when the Whidbey Environmental Action Network (WEAN) appealed the county’s determination that it won’t significantly impact the environment. The county’s hearings examiner has to rule on the appeal before the ordinance can be adopted, said Jeff Tate, assistant director of the Department of Planning and Community Development.

The ordinance will apply to landowners doing agricultural activities in the rural zone, which comprises about 60 percent of the land in Island County. The aim is to protect streams, wetlands and other sensitive areas, as required by the state Growth Management Act. Past efforts to do this by the county have been ruled insufficient by the courts and Growth Management Hearings Board.

To identify affected landowners, Tate said county personnel literally drove along county roads last summer, doing a “windshield survey” of agricultural activities.

“We drove down every road in the county and made notes on parcel maps,” Tate said. He said they came up with approximately 2,500 landowners “who we really suspect are conducting an agricultural activity.” One thing the survey counted was “animal units,” which is planning lingo for livestock. Each unit equals 1,000 pounds of livestock, ranging from a single cow to 10 alpacas.

Those people, and others the county is aware of or who step forward voluntarily, will receive mailings after the critical areas ordinance is adopted, explaining what they will have to do to comply with the law.

In a nutshell, people with a long history of farming in rural zones and who own land along streams or wetlands will have to come up with a plan. For those who started farming before 1998 when the county’s land use plan was adopted, and who have just a few head of livestock, a county-approved “standard farm plan” might suffice. Others will have to produce a more complex “custom plan.” The Whidbey Island Conservation District is ready to work with farmers to complete their plans.

One recent brouhaha involved WEAN’s access to individual farm plans, which has angered some farmers who think their plans should be private. Tate said this concern could keep some farmers from coming forward to comply with the new ordinance. WEAN’s action, he said, “will make it substantially harder to get people to comply.”

WEAN’s Steve Erickson said they are looking at farm plans to make sure the plans really protect the environment. In a written statement he explained, “”If the farm plans are actually implemented -- which is unknown -- do they provide this minimal protection for wetlands and streams, as required by state law . . . what, exactly, do these voluntary farm plans advise people to do? That’s what we’re now finding out.”

The commissioners will be considering an ordinance that is different in some ways from the one recommended by the Planning Commission. County staff made changes to satisfy WEAN and the Growth Board.

Erickson said this week that the end product is “a vast improvement” over what was recommended, primarily because setbacks are now required in wetland areas and that Best Management Practices must be followed.

However, WEAN still isn’t satisfied with the proposed protections. Erickson criticized buffers along salmon habitat areas as too narrow, and said mowing should not be allowed in wetland areas, among other concerns.

Once the commissioners adopt the critical areas ordinance, landowners will have up to 18 months to submit a management plan, Tate said, and up to two years after that to fully implement a standard plan, or three years for a custom plan.

Anyone who doesn’t do a plan would instead have to follow the more restrictive rules in the ordinance, such as providing a 100-foot setbacks next to critical areas in which animals could never roam and mowing could not take place.

Tate said county officials disagree with WEAN’s assertion that setbacks are not restrictive enough. “We think the setbacks are consistent, we feel good about what the numbers are,” he said.

Community Events, April 2014

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