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Poor communication nearly lost good farmland

"Our View" - Editorial by Bellingham Herald

July 14, 2006

Bellingham, WA - Why is it so difficult for government agencies to talk to each other?

If officials from the state Department of Transportation and the state Department of Ecology had communicated better, they might have stopped the crazy idea of condemning good farmland before it ended up in wasted court and staff time.

Transportation Department officials moved to condemn about 34 acres of good Whatcom County farmland in June, saying the land was needed to create wetlands. The DOT is going to have to destroy some wetlands as it widens the Guide Meridian north from Bellingham to the Canadian border. State and federal environmental laws require the DOT to replace those lost wetlands by building wetlands somewhere else.

Two years of study led the department to settle on property owned by John and Alice Sterk, now used to grow crops and as pastureland in support of their dairy farm. When the Sterks didn't respond to an offer to sell, the DOT filed condemnation documents in court.

Local officials, including County Executive Pete Kremen, and representatives of the agricultural preservation community protested. Officials from the Washington State Dairy Federation joined them.

Now state Ecology Department officials are saying their insistence on new wetlands was never meant to communicate to the DOT that it should take legal action to force the Sterks off their land.

Huh? Then why would the DOT believe it needed to do so? Aren't there people at the two agencies who could have communicated the demands and expectations more clearly?

It appears that cooler heads will prevail and that state officials will find new property for the wetlands. There are plenty of rural lands in our county where such a project could take place without endangering a working farm.

But it's stunning that state departments don't appear to be communicating clearly on something so important. What if the condemnation had already gone forward before someone said, "No, we didn't mean that"? What would have happened to the Sterks and their dairy farm?

We understand the pressure the state is under to get the Guide Meridian project going - on the drawing boards for nearly 15 years, it has taken far too long, from our perspective. But agricultural property in our county is already under threat from growth. The idea that the state would have condemned valuable agricultural land when it didn't need to, because officials from two agencies weren't clear with each other, is reprehensible.



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