County delays wetland rules
By Kasia Pierzga
Port Townsend Leader Staff Writer
Port Townsend, WA - Bad timing, poor communication, pages of baffling legalese and a sense of public distrust contributed to the recent uproar over proposed changes to a county law designed to protect the environment.
To make up for the public relations disaster, county officials plan to take all summer to smooth things over with local residents and property owners, hosting a series of public meetings to explain the county's critical areas ordinance and inviting people to comment.
But many of the people protesting the critical areas ordinance are skeptical that further meetings will change their opinion that the proposal is too restrictive and severe both for farmers and other property owners. People are concerned not only with existing use but how rule changes could reduce future use, and how landowners would be forced to pay for expensive consultants when seeking land use changes.
"They're layering on yet another layer to make it more difficult to do whatever you're going to do on your property," property owner Richard Hild told The Leader. "You can smell wrong, if you just get in there and stick your nose in the wind."
The draft ordinance now under consideration has been in the works since January, when a legal challenge filed by the Washington Environmental Council against Jefferson County came to a settlement.
The agreement was reached in an effort to avoid an expensive legal battle that the county thought it would lose. County officials have said that they entered into the settlement as a way of preserving language that allowed agriculture to be exempt from the new wetland buffer requirements.
Through negotiations with the WEC, the county agreed to more precisely define "existing and ongoing agriculture," thereby limiting the exemption to land that has been committed to agriculture for the long term.
Under county development laws, new agricultural uses are not eligible for the exemption.
According to Jefferson County Senior Planner Josh Peters, land would qualify for the agricultural exemption from standard stream and wetland buffers if it is either enrolled in the open space tax program for agriculture or designated by the county as either prime or local agricultural lands, and has been the site of some form of agricultural activity within the five years before April 28, 2003.
But some farmers say the wording of the agricultural exemption is hard to understand, and they're not sure they can trust county officials to explain it to them. They worry that any change in their operations could trigger new, more restrictive buffer zones that would force them to set aside more land for protection of wetlands and streams.
County officials said they feel exasperated over the uproar and are especially frustrated by the farmers who are angry about the settlement.
"The most disappointing thing is that it's the farmers who are angry." Peters said in an email to The Leader. "They're the whole reason we entered into a settlement to avoid the Growth Management Hearings Board. It's hard to fight for people who think you're fighting against them."
If the issue can't be resolved with the settlement and instead ends up in the courts, Peters said he believes the agricultural exemption will be lost.
"They seem to want to give up a sure thing of an exemption from standard stream and wetland buffers for existing and ongoing agriculture in exchange for taking their chances in the legal process," he said.
To meet the requirements of the WEC settlement, county planning staff spent about five months developing a new ordinance, which was released to the public in May. The ordinance is currently under review by the county planning commission, which is now taking public comment and will eventually present its recommendations to the county commissioners.
The commissioners agreed to extend the public comment period after about 30 farmers and property owners staged a demonstration at the commissioners' meeting on June 13.
According to Peters, the draft ordinance indicates that the standard buffer for the most environmentally valuable wetlands is 300 feet.
Most of the standard buffers are smaller — from 50 feet to 250 feet — and buffers for less-critical wetlands could actually be three times smaller than what is currently required.
Rather than using a one-size-fits-all approach, the proposed ordinance allows for greater flexibility depending on the conditions onsite, he said.
Peters said that depending on the value of the habitat, the new buffers might be twice as big as before — or three times smaller than before.
While the draft critical areas ordinance has been available for public review, some people who have expressed opposition said they either hadn't reviewed it or had trouble understanding what it meant.
Because of an internal communications glitch, a county Department of Community Development press release announcing a public hearing on the ordinance was delayed. By the time people learned about the hearing, they felt they didn't have time to prepare.
Scrambling to read and understand the ordinance in time to provide informed comments at the hearing, many people complained that the complicated legal language left them confused and worried about whether or not they really understood how it might affect them. Many farmers found themselves trying to decipher the ordinance at the peak of the late-spring haying season, ,when they were busy putting in long hours out in their fields.
As a result, many assumed the worst.
Fanning the flames of anger over the proposal is the current campaign for a statewide property rights initiative being promoted by the Washington State Farm Bureau. A new North Olympic Counties Farm Bureau chapter is being formed in part to help advance the campaign.
The turmoil also comes on the heels of a recent uproar over the in-stream flow rule proposed by the Washington Department of Ecology to regulate how much water is left in local streams to protect salmon habitat.
The same man who was at the helm of the WEC when the group sued Jefferson County for failing to update its critical areas ordinance is now the head of the Deparment of Ecology: Jay Manning.
County planning and administrative staff met June 26 with the Jefferson County commissioners to discuss what went wrong, and what to do next.
Also invited to the meeting was Katherine Baril, director of Washington State Univerity's Jefferson County Extension, who offered her perspective on how to diffuse people's anger over the proposal.
Her first suggestion: Make sure people don't feel left out of the process.
Reaching the settlement through confidential negotiations with the WEC only served to make people suspicious, she said.
"Whether it's litigation or policy, people need to be at the table," she said.
She also recommended that county officials invest time in communicating the changes in language that makes sense to the average reader.
Uncertainty over how the proposal could affect the use of land for farming could undermine the recent renaissance of small-scale farms in Jefferson County, many of which seek to meet growing demand for organic produce and farm products, Baril said.
"We have some young farmers buying land, and they're scared to death," she said.
Many property owners, especially those with deep roots in Jefferson County, are afraid well-heeled newcomers want to turn the county into a giant park, she said. Whether through purchase or regulation, land could be taken out of production and set aside for environmental protection. With no way to make a living, farmers and other local residents would have to pull up roots and leave.
To foster a sense of trust, Baril urged the commissioners to find ways to reach out to local farmers. Her suggestions included creating an ombudsman position to serve as a liaison representing the inteterests of farmers and other property owners, and promoting economic development that ensures no net loss of farm families and helps aging farmers develop a transition plan for the next generation of farmers who could take their place.
With the public comment period extended to Monday, Oct. 23, county officials will spend the next few months hosting public meetings to explain and build concensus on the proposal.
The first step is to develop a question-and-answer sheet to explain in plain English what the ordinance says.
A major concern among some farmers is the lack of certainty about the definition of "existing and ongoing" agriculture as described in the ordinance. Does it mean that agricultural land that has lain fallow for a few years loses that exemption? If a farmer wants to shift from growing hay to raising beef cattle, would the new enterprise still qualify as an "existing" use?
People are also confused about the proposed wetland buffers and say they are worried the changes could limit how they can use their land, and potentially reduce its economic value.
People also are angry about a section in the ordinance that says that property owners who want to develop their land — or change how they use it — must foot the bill to hire a professional to delineate the wetlands on their land. Those who don't want to pay for a delineation report must agree to a 450-foot buffer — a setup that might work for someone who has a wetland in the far corner of their property, but not so great for someone who has a wetland in the middle of it.
Another option for people who want to develop their land is a less-expensive wetlands assessment that identifies the category and type of wetland but not its boundaries. Under that option, the property owner would have to set aside the standard buffer plus one-an-a-half times that amount of land.
Rather than forcing landowners to shoulder the burden of paying for the delineation, the county could instead add a new position and provide that consulting as a public service, said Department of Community Development Director Al Scalf. But to pay for that position, the county would have to increase permit fees.
(Contact Kasia Pierzga at email@example.com.