Island County Commissioners delay fish and wildlife protections

A farmer’s right to maintain drainage ditches without regulation was at the core of Monday’s debate on fish and wildlife protections at Monday’s Island County commissioner meeting.

Unable to reach consensus, Island County commissioners delayed adopting the document and agreed to revisit the discussion during their Sept. 3 work session and Sept. 8 regular meeting.

At the core of their debate is the need to adopt the government-mandated regulations without creating obstacles for farms within critical areas.

Under the current draft, farmers with drainage ditches that are categorized as regulated streams would be required to go through an expensive process of permitting and inspection to perform basic ditch maintenance.

“It would put us out of business,” said Daryl VanderPool owner of Maxwelton Farm.

“We would be done.”

Several farmers Monday urged the commissioners to revisit the requirements that would affect the island’s farming community.

“This was a poorly drafted ordinance before it got to you,” Ray Gabelein said. “You’re going to have to do a lot of work on it to get it where it needs to be.”

Christine Williams said that all the farms on Whidbey are connected, and placing undue restrictions on some of the farms would affect the entire “web of farming” negatively.

“I really think we need to be very careful,” Williams said.

Commissioner Helen Price Johnson tried to gain support for an across-the-board exemption for ditch maintenance on existing and ongoing farm operations but failed to gain traction.

“Clearly there’s confusion about what is there,” Price Johnson said. “I share the concern.”

Planner Brad Johnson said he believes that such an exemption would run afoul of the Growth Management Act requirements, which the county is striving to meet.

“My understanding of the GMA requirements is that we are supposed to be balancing these interests,” Price Johnson replied.

Commissioner Jill Johnson said that exempting regulated streams in agricultural areas would be against the spirit of state Fish and Wildlife regulations.

“What this whole exercise is about is the protection of fish and wildlife,” Johnson said. “Although this is not how the generation before us farmed, this is the new world that we’re living in now. And one of the expectations is that we are not going to engage in behavior that causes known environmental harm.

“When you talk about some of these ditches that are also streams, that is going to be an area of conflict.”

Before their next discussion, commissioners directed staff to more clearly define “regulated stream” to clarify for farmers who would be affected by the regulation.

While farmers took issue with the ditch regulations, members of the Whidbey Environmental Action Network said the findings of fact and updated ordinance fall short of its goal to protect fish and wildlife.

“These are not findings; they are justification for not doing the right thing,” said Marianne Edain of WEAN.

The group challenged the county’s wetland regulations previously to the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board.

If necessary, Edain said WEAN will do it again.

“We don’t want to have to go back to the Hearings Board,” Edain said. “We’re going to be back all over this.”

If the commissioners make substantive changes to the regulations, a third public hearing would be scheduled.

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