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County defends Critical Areas Ordinance

Island County and the Whidbey Environmental Action Network found themselves again duking it out in front of three judges.

The Growth Management Act Hearings Board convened Thursday in front of a standing-room-only audience to hear the two sides battle over Island County’s Critical Areas Ordinance update.

The board will ultimately determine what agricultural activities should be exempt from Critical Area protections in Island County.

The county defended itself against accusations leveled by WEAN that the ordinance lacks sufficient environment protection measures.

“Ag has damaged and is damaging critical areas,” WEAN spokesman Steve Erickson told the board, submitting information he said shows that 106 sites tested exceeded Department of Ecology standards for fecal coliform.

On the side of the county sat Keith Dearborn, an attorney representing Island County during the update process, and Josh Choate of the county prosecutor’s office. Also in support of the county were Rufus Rose and Jeanne Hunsinger, representing the Island County Property Rights Alliance.

WEAN was represented by Steve Erickson and Marianne Edain. The organization has petitioned the board against the county on several occasions dating back to 1998.

WEAN based its case on supplying a preponderance of evidence. “The briefs and supporting documentation ran to ten pounds, and that was with putting the scientific material on a CD,” said Edain.

“I question the validity of the ‘evidence,’” said Rose, who took issue with the interpretation of water sampling and testing used as the basis for WEAN’s argument.

Margery Hite, the presiding officer of the state hearings board, was appointed to the Western Washington Growth Management hearings Board in 2002. She currently resides on a farm in Skagit County.

“The question of this board is the compliance of the ordinance,” said Hite. The ordinance must comply with the state Growth Management Act.

For the most part, Hite seemed concerned about the county’s ability to enforce the ordinance when violations are reported.

“You don’t have an inspection system,” said Hite. “You have a complaint system.”

She went on to ask for clarification on how enforcement works if the county does not have access to individual farm plans. Farm plans submitted to the Whidbey Island Conservation District are no longer considered public information.

The county indicated that they believe compliance is not an issue at this time. Dearborn responded to questioning of enforcement by citing the county’s use of an extensive surface water quality monitoring program as an indicator that no violations are occurring. Currently the county staffs six personnel dedicated to monitoring water quality.

“It’s more important to be* fair than to be right,” said Dearborn. “Right now we aren’t getting it fair.”

Both sides fired volleys of accusation and supporting facts in their testimony.

The activities of livestock on privately-owned acreage is at the center of the controversy. Erickson contends that over 37 percent of farmland owners have critical areas on their property.

“The county is letting politics trump common sense here,” Erickson said.

The county rebutted that with the limited “hobby farms” that dominate agriculture on the island, serious environmental problems do not exist.

The hearing took an emotional turn when Hunsinger broke into tears while stating her belief that other businesses were not being held to the same standards on critical areas. She regained her composure quickly and concluded her statement by making an appeal to the board to be fair to small farm owners.

“In terms of fairness,” said Erickson, “kids should be able to play in a creek without getting sick from it.”

“Any observer can see our only large-scale commercial farming is here in Coupeville,” said Dearborn in his rebuttal. “We’re talking about small-scale.”

Now it is up to the board to review testimony and evidence before rendering a decision. A verdict is expected in the next few weeks, but an appellate process could take months to settle.

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