Sound Off: Treat small farmers equally

By Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen

My family has made its home on Camano Island for more than 100 years, and my grandkids are the fifth generation to live here. I love the rural character of Island County, and I am deeply disturbed about the growing controversy about small agricultural operations in our community. I fear that continued legal wrangling could destroy the rural lifestyle we all enjoy.

Whidbey Environmental Action Network is a group of committed activists whose hearts are in the right place, but whose strict interpretations of state law threaten the progress we have made to protect the rural landscape and curb irrational development.

At the same time, the county has exaggerated the impact of new land use rules. A recent mailing to residents warning that gardens may be restricted will pull hundreds of people to a public meeting, but it won’t help develop a reasonable solution that all island residents can support.

I was impressed by the turnout and comments from my neighbors at the recent community meetings. I heard strong support for the agricultural traditions of Island County, and I am hopeful these meetings will help the county build the record it needs as it once again appears before the Growth Management Board.

The biggest argument before the board and in our community seems to be the distance of setbacks from small seasonal streams and wetlands. We have got to inject some common sense into this debate. The real issue should be fairness to all landowners with an eye to maintaining the rural character of our community. When measured against that yardstick, it seems to me that the status quo was working just fine.

What concerns me most about recent developments is that small rural landowners don’t get the same treatment as the larger-acreage farms. Just as we allow larger farms to operate with only a 25-foot setback from these streams and wetlands, we should give the same rights to smaller farmers with five or more acres. While a small farm may not be a family’s sole source of income, the vast majority of rural lands in our county are in these smaller parcels. The rural character of Island County is dependent on the viability of these rural homesteads.

I have been a supporter of mechanisms like the Growth Management Act (GMA), so that our community can sustain the rural character of Island County. The goal of the law was to focus residential development, preserve the health of our communities and prevent serious environmental disaster, while allowing sound agricultural practices. The GMA offers the same level of protections for agricultural producers as it does for wetlands and other sensitive areas.

In no way did the Legislature intend to turn back the clock on agriculture or residential development. And if we fail to provide any flexibility within the GMA, we risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

We have made progress on these kinds of issues this past legislative session. I crafted legislation that will protect farmers from frivolous lawsuits while informing new residents in rural areas of the impact of legal agricultural practices. This new law was approved by wide margins in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

For next session, I am drafting legislation that will provide protection for small farmers and preserve the rural quality of life. When the Legislature reconvenes next year, I will press my colleagues to consider changes in current law that will help accomplish these goals.

The irony of the current intense public debate is that both sides are motivated by a desire to preserve the character of our community. We love our islands and we are all passionate about defending them. I think we should take a deep breath and a step back, and work with both sides to find a lasting solution to these land use issues.

Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, represents Island County and portions of Skagit and Snohomish counties, including La Conner and parts of Mount Vernon and Burlington.

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