Proposed buffer rule changes draw out farmers, ranchers

By Barney Burke
Port Townsend Leader Staff Writer


Port Townsend, WA - Like a herd of spooked cattle, farmers and cattlemen filled the room at the Jefferson County Planning Commission meeting Feb. 5.

Many were there because they received an anonymous postcard by mail which falsely claimed that a proposed change in environmental protection buffers would cause landowners to lose the property tax breaks they receive under the Washington Open Space Act.

But changes to the county's buffer rules will have absolutely no effect on the tax breaks approved by voters in 1968, county Assessor Jack Westerman III confirmed after the meeting.

The real issue before the planning commission stems from a settlement negotiated between the county and the Washington Environmental Council (WEC), a group that has successfully challenged buffer exemptions in other counties.

In March 2002, the county and WEC reached an agreement by which the county agreed to amend its rules that grant a blanket exemption to buffer requirements for agriculture. Neither the planning commission nor any farmers or ranchers were included in the negotiation process, according to county staff.

Under the county's current rules, for example, all agricultural uses are exempt from having to stay as much as several hundred feet from streams in order to protect salmon. Under the proposed change drafted by county staff, "farming/agricultural activities are only exempt if conducted on lands of the Agriculture Production District (AG-PD) land use district on the comprehensive plan land use map."

Earning a living

Trouble is, many Jefferson County farmers and ranchers are making a living - or trying to - on land that isn't so designated on the comprehensive plan map.

Diane Johnson, who owns land near Dabob Bay, said hers isn't prime agricultural land but people grow and sell things there nonetheless.

"We don't make jack crap - a buck or two an hour," Kit Siemion told the planning commission. With that, a woman in the back piped up, "You make that much?" The crowd roared in agreement.

But Roger Short of Center Valley made it clear that ranching is no cakewalk, saying that he just sold 60 percent of his dairy herd to meet his accounts payable. "If you want agriculture in this county," he argued, "the people in agriculture need every break they can get."

And Herb Beck of Quilcene said he only makes $1,600 to $1,800 from the two steers he sells a year. "I'm not giving up one inch of ground," he insisted. "If you're in the ag business, you need every square inch of the land for your business." He was concerned that the rule change could end up encouraging the conversion of ag land to housing subdivisions.


Several landowners argued that the potential rule change is unnecessary and likely to have no benefit.

Beck, whose family has been a presence in Quilcene since the 1800s, said, "I can hear salmon spawning 200 to 300 feet from my bedroom," for the first time in many years this year and last year.

Mark Ross, who runs 20 head of cattle in Eaglemont, said, "The closest thing I've seen to a fish is a frog." Johnson was similarly unimpressed, recalling that salmon used to fill the creek near her land when there were many more cattle than there are today.

John Boulton suggested that buffers as deep as 300 feet are unnecessary. He quoted data on the stream near his land north of Quilcene that indicated the water is cleaner after it passes through his ranchland.

Process debated

Jerry Gorsline of Cape George was on WEC's negotiating team. He told the planning commission that the county's current exemptions are too broad and do nothing to protect fisheries and other critical areas. "Everybody's required to protect critical areas," he said.

The other person who spoke in favor of the settlement agreement was Nancy Dorgan, a land use activist from Port Townsend. She asserted that "the asset being taken away from me [the general public] is the fish," adding, "Someone is going to have to give an inch."

As to the process of the county and WEC negotiating the settlement away from the public's view, Dorgan said, "It's just kind of how we operate in land use now."

Ross disagreed. "No one ever consulted me about the viability of this stream-supported wildlife." Beck agreed, noting, "They [WEC] know more about us - we don't know about them."

Robert Pontius expressed the frustration that appeared to be felt by many. "Nobody contacted me," he fumed. "It's flat not fair and it's not right."

Next steps

The planning commission took no action last week but will discuss agricultural buffers again at 7 p.m. Feb. 19. Community Development Director Al Scalf said that the county could ask the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board for more time to work on the contentious issue.

In Skagit County, the hearings board has ruled that a 75-foot stream buffer sought by the Swinomish Tribe lacked scientific evidence. Perhaps of greater significance, the board noted that Skagit County was making a good-faith effort to protect both agriculture and fishing.

And in January 2003, Skagit County Superior Court Judge Christine Pomeroy ruled that the state's Growth Management Act requires "conservation protection," not "enhancement," of fish habitat, a decision hailed by the Western Washington Agricultural Association.

Jefferson County is attempting to determine which agricultural lands should continue to receive the exemptions, said associate planner Josh Peters. In those areas not exempted, the county plans to work with property owners to develop solutions on a watershed-by-watershed basis, he noted.

Regarding the state law authorizing property tax breaks for agricultural and other open space uses, Westerman explained that those exemptions are based not on zoning and land use planning but on soil classifications. Soil classifications are determined by the Jefferson County Soil Conservation District, he said.

Agricultural land used for commercial purposes is valued at about $75 to $300 per acre under the state rules, Westerman noted. Also, there are penalties if the land is converted from agricultural to other uses. Accordingly, it takes about 13 years of property tax exemptions to make a land-use change a break-even proposition, Westerman estimated.


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