WEAN wins critical areas lawsuit

A Thurston County judge agrees with a local environmental group that two Island County ordinances dealing with wetlands on farm land must be revised.

The Island County Commissioners supported a staff recommendation not to appeal the decision.

“We disagree with the Thurston County ruling,” Planning Director David Wechner told the commissioners Monday. “Nevertheless, we see no advantage in appealing.”

A lawsuit was filed by the Whidbey Environmental Action Network, or WEAN, in 2006 after the Island County commissioners adopted two ordinances dealing with critical areas, such as wetlands, in agricultural areas.

The group unsuccessfully challenged the ordinance to the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board, and subsequently filed the lawsuit in Thurston County Superior Court.

The group initially challenged the county’s treatment of wetlands on farmland back in 2000 and won. The Hearings Board agreed in that case that a county ordinance exempting all agriculture from wetland protection was contrary to the Growth Management Act.

Wechner recommended Monday that the county respond to the hearings board with a plan to revise the ordinances by 2016, the deadline for a mandatory ordinance update already in process.

“Staff is confident that a review based on new data with all the stakeholders involved will result in Island County agriculture and environmental protection,” Wechner said.

Public Health Director Keith Higman said he agrees with Wechner that the ordinance they would be defending in an appeal is from 2005 and likely outdated anyway.

WEAN representatives could not reached for comment.

Last year, WEAN founder Steve Erickson said his main concerns with the ordinances were that the under the current regulation, the farm management plans required of farmers would not be available to the public and that the plans were not enforceable.

Commissioner Helen Price Johnson said she doesn’t not agree with the Thurston County ruling, but moving forward with a revision is the best way to apply the county’s “scant” resources.

“It’s time to put a stop to this long, protracted court battle,” Price Johnson said.

The 2006 lawsuit was stayed several years ago after the state Legislature asked the William D. Ruckelshaus Center up with a solution for regulating critical areas, which had become a statewide debate.

The center finally proposed the Voluntary Stewardship Program, which would have required the county to set up new watershed groups that would create work plans, but the commissioners voted to opt out of the program last year.

Commissioner Kelly Emerson said Monday she’d like to see the stewardship program reconsidered by the county and that she was “deeply saddened that we are still using resources on this.”

She said that the ruling should be “a warning to voters to do their homework” in choosing decision makers who made choices and rulings involving the lawsuit.

Commissioner Jill Johnson she supported the staff recommendation but defended the work of of the previous county leadership.

“This work is work we would have to do anyway, regardless of the outcome of that legal process,” Johnson said. “It’s a much wiser use of our tax dollars. This is no way implies that the work done previously by the community was without merit or was faulty.

“I support your recommendation I think it’s the best course for our county.”


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