County approves critical areas ordinance

The Island County Board of Commissioners unanimously voted Tuesday to update the critical area ordinance, a process that’s been ongoing since 1999. The ordinance addressed what farmers who have land in these areas can do to preserve habitat and water quality.

The ordinance protects critical areas, which are wetlands, critical aquifer recharge areas, fish and wildlife habitat conservation areas, frequently flooded areas and geologically hazardous areas. The update to the 1999 ordinance allows agricultural operations in rural-zoned lands over half an acre to be partially exempted from critical area restrictions. The original allowed exemptions for commercial-agriculture zones and rural-agriculture land. Being exempted means these farms can continue to operate as they have been since 1998, as long as they implement recommended best management practices to keep the waterways from getting contaminated.

Representatives from the Whidbey Island Conservation District worked with the planning commission on the updates.

“In this update, my opinion is that Island County has done a good job of balancing critical areas protection while ensuring the ongoing viability of production farms,” Karen Bishop, of the conservation district, said in a statement.

The conservation district works with farmers who want the help to develop conservation plans.

Several farmers spoke in opposition to the regulations in the ordinance. One was Ray Gabelein, who said he understood why the commissioners voted to approve the ordinance but doesn’t completely agree with what’s in it.

“It just seems like every time we do an update to an ordinance, farmers are asked to give more,” said Gabelein.

He said he agreed with the rural-zoned lands being exempted in the update, but expressed concern that the regulations involved in the ordinance would dissuade future farmers from the industry.

“Whoever it is that takes this farm over needs to know they can do it without excessive regulations,” he said.

The update does not include any additional regulations to farmers than what were already in the 1999 ordinance. Farmers on rural-agriculture zones and commercial-agriculture zones in critical areas are required to have a 25-foot buffer to the waterway that they cannot use. Extended from that 25-foot buffer is another 25-foot area that can be used by the farmer until the wet season, Nov. 1-March 31. With the update, rural-zoned areas can farm on a 50-foot buffer area from the waterway until the wet season.

The update comes after a series of appeals by the Whidbey Environmental Action Network (WEAN) in which it argued the ordinance was not restrictive enough under the Growth Management Act. The GMA is the law that directs counties to protect critical areas but also preserve “rural lifestyles and provide opportunities for small-scale, rural-based employment and self-employment.” Originally, Island County’s ordinance exempted all agricultural activity.

“It quite literally exempted somebody growing some petunias in a pot,” said Steve Erickson of WEAN.

Meredith Penny of the planning commission has been the lead on these updates since 2015. Throughout the process, the county held 27 public hearings on the subject.

“Overall, we worked really hard to evaluate best available science along with community input,” said Penny. “I think that, judging by the comments we heard during pubic hearing, we were able to strike a balance, but there’s always room for improvement.”

All of the commissioners agreed that the balance between environmental and agricultural interests had been achieved.

“This is, pardon the pun, a watershed moment for Island County to be adopting this critical areas ordinance for agriculture,” said Commissioner Helen Price Johnson at the hearing. Commissioner Rick Hannold also said he felt the update was a “win-win.”

“To me, if ever there were two aligned interests, it’s those who make their living off the land and those who love and are passionate and care about the quality of the land,” said Jill Johnson, chair of the board of commissioners.

There might still be more work to be done on the ordinance. WEAN has not decided yet if it is going to appeal the updated ordinance, according to Erickson.

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