Farm protest earns delay
By Kasia Pierzga
Port Townsend Leader Staff Writer
Jefferson County, WA - A protest at the Jefferson County Courthouse on Monday earned local property owners a temporary reprieve from new environmental rules some fear could reduce the value of their land.
New rules proposed
Proposed changes to Jefferson County's critical areas ordinance include:
Expanding stream and wetland buffer zones to protect salmon and wildlife habitat. Some new buffers could be as much as three times larger than those under current county rules.
Requiring property owners who want to seek approval of smaller buffer zones to hire a professional to delineate wetland boundaries.
Adding a new category titled "channel migration zones" to the section covering areas to be protected with buffers.
Identifying new types of stream to be protected by buffers.
Establishing guidelines for creating designated core wildlife habitat areas or corridors that would affect applications for land division and forest practice conversions.
Adding a broader range of options for protection of fish and wildlife habitat in planned rural residential developments.
Comments can be sent by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org
The Board of County Commissioners agreed unanimously to add an extra 90 days to the public comment period on proposed changes to the county's critical areas ordinance.
Under the proposed changes, some streams and buffers could require a 450-foot buffer zone to protect habitat from the impact of development or farming.
The buffer zone requirements vary depending on the kind of stream or wetland and how the surrounding land would be used.
As an example, if a piece of farmland has a stream passing through the middle of it, its owner may be required to leave up to 450 feet of land oneither side of the stream undisturbed.
The commissioners' decision to seek more public input came after a small convoy of tractors festooned with protest signs pulled up in front of the courthouse and about 35 property owners crowded into the commissioners' chambers to voice their opposition to the proposed changes.
Many in the audience said they needed more time to read and understand how the changes might affect them.
The amendments, developed in part as a result of a legal settlement between the county and the Washington Environmental Council, a statewide advocacy and lobbying group, include stream buffers that some people said could rob them of the use of part of their land.
Many of those at the June 19 meeting said that because the public was left out of the settlement negotiations, the agreement essentially put the WEC in charge of writing environmental protection laws in Jefferson County.
"You've allowed them to define the rules," said Port Ludlow resident Ron Gregory.
If the WEC isn't satisfied with the revised protections, it could go to court to force the county to make changes.
Marilyn Sullivan, a property owner who traveled from her home along the Hoh River in West Jefferson County to take part in the protest, said property owners, through their elected representatives, should be in charge of establishing county environmental rules.
"Surely in America we have rights as property owners," she said.
The protest came on the heels of an Olympic Water Users Association meeting the previous week at which the possibility of suing the county was raised for signing the settlement agreement without public scrutiny.
Under the agreement, the WEC "reserves the right to seek additional regulatory requirements by appropriate means if it concludes that the voluntary compliance program is failing to meet its objective to protect wetlands and fish and wildlife habitat from impacts related to agriculture."
Commissioner David Sullivan said the extended public comment period should clear up some misunderstandings about the new rules.
"There's a lot of clarification that has to happen," he said.
During the rally Monday, proponents of Initiative 933, a property-rights measure advocated by the Washington State Farm Bureau, took the opportunity to collect signatures in support of the measure. The measure calls for government to compensate landowners when laws reduce the value of their property.
While the commissioners voted to extend the public comment period on the critical areas ordinance by 90 days, the county still has to ask WEC for approval of the extension. That's because the settlement agreement called for the county to complete its public process on the changes by mid-July.
The WEC legal challenge began after the county missed a state-mandated 2004 deadline for review of its critical areas ordinance during the process of updating its comprehensive plan.
At the time, thecounty commissioners decided to delay the review so they could apply "best available science" that was being developed by the state Department of Ecology. The agency's work fell behind schedule, and the WEC petitioned the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board to force the county to perform the review.
While the agreement between the county and the WEC was signed in January 2006, the proposed changes developed by county planning staff weren't available to the public until May. Few local property owners were aware of the changes, and only two people turned out for the first public hearing before the planning commission on June 7.
The June 21 public hearing before the planning commission is a continuation of that first hearing.
After gathering public input on the ordinance, the planning commission will present its recommendations to the Board of County Commissioners, which can either accept those recommendations or opt to hold its own public hearing on the matter.