Stevens County refines land-protection ordinance Tentative draft wins cautious praise from all sides; public meeting Tuesday

John Craig
Staff writer

June 16, 2004

COLVILLE Stevens County residents will get a last look Tuesday at county efforts to pass a new land-protection ordinance and avoid possibly severe economic sanctions.

Officials are still working on last-minute refinements, but a tentative draft is drawing cautious praise from disparate quarters.

Although reserving judgment, a farm organization with much to lose and a Loon Lake group seeking stronger environmental controls both are generally pleased with the county's latest efforts to comply with the state Growth Management Act.

That's good news for county commissioners. They face a July 9 deadline to pass a "critical areas ordinance" the Eastern Washington Growth Management Hearings Board will like better than two previous ordinances the board flayed.

Loon Lake property owners, organized as the Larsen Beach Neighbors, filed a petition four years ago asking the growth board to intervene. Ultimately, the board asked Gov. Gary Locke to withhold state tax money from the county until it passed an acceptable ordinance to protect streams, wetlands, unstable slopes, wildlife habitat and other areas considered especially sensitive.

Locke hasn't acted on that recommendation.

Larsen Beach Neighbors leader Jeanie Wagenman said she still has some concerns and is reserving judgment on the new ordinance until she sees the final draft, but "I think, for the most part, they've done a good job."

Only recently, she said, have county representatives newly hired professional contractors engaged in face-to-face negotiations with her group and other opponents, including the Loon Lake Property Owners Association.

One of Wagenman's complaints had been that no activities, not even mining or hazardous-waste handling, were prohibited in critical areas under previous ordinances. That's still true in the proposed ordinance, but it spells out uses that would trigger a review. Wagenman calls that progress, although not necessarily enough.

Wes McCart, president of the Stevens County Farm Bureau, also was warily optimistic. He applauded county efforts to exempt agriculture from stream and wetland buffer zones that farmers and ranchers believe would be financially ruinous.

One of the major features of the new critical areas ordinance is that it would apply to farming, which was exempt under previous versions.

Following the example of growth management boards in Western and Central Washington, the Eastern Washington board said farmers and ranchers must join everyone else in protecting sensitive areas, including wetlands and streams.

Many farmers bridled at the prospect of having to keep cattle and crops as far away from streams and wetlands as houses would have to be set back. But McCart believes county officials have found a satisfactory compromise.

The draft ordinance to be discussed Tuesday would require affected landowners to implement mitigation measures devised by the Stevens County Soil Conservation District and similar organizations, but would allow them to continue using land that otherwise could be put off limits by 50- to 200-foot buffers.

"We feel that's fine," McCart said. "We don't want to hurt the environment. The conservation district is our friend."

He said most farmers already use scientific methods. He believes farming itself is a boon to wildlife and a buffer for aquifer-replenishing streams and wetlands.

"My family is drinking this water," McCart said. "Why would I purposely do anything to degrade it?"

Wagenman said her group wants to balance environmental protection with economic considerations, and she hopes adherence to good farming practices will be adequate. She has more confidence in buffers, though.

Citing inability of the Colville River to meet standards for fecal coliform bacteria and dissolved oxygen, Wagenman asked, "If the county has been meeting best management practices, shouldn't it show up in that river?"

McCart said having to comply with the buffers substantially increased in hopes of satisfying the growth board could drive many farmers out of business. Farmers worry especially about how wetland rules might be interpreted in areas of frequent flooding.

"Most of the streams in the whole county flood in the spring and end up on farmed areas," McCart said.

If wetland buffers were applied to the 135 acres he farms west of Springdale, only 13 would be left after allowing for the portion that's flooded when Tshimakain Creek overflows its banks in the spring, McCart said.

He estimated that 60 percent to 80 percent of Stevens County farmland might be taken out of production if the proposed buffers were applied to agriculture.

County Planning Director Lenore Marken said spring flooding doesn't automatically create wetlands, but he acknowledged the determination is "somewhat complex."

Existing farms and ranches would be exempt from buffers by a grandfather clause, but those "non-conforming uses" could lose their protection in some situations. Generally, those situations involve a major change in land use, but a review could be triggered by something as simple as an application to remodel a house.

Planner Jenni Anderson doesn't think a farmer would lose his grandfather protection by building a new house in a critical area, "but honestly we have not come to a firm resolution on that. It's the burning question."

Tuesday's informal public meeting will be at 6 p.m. in the Agriculture Building at the county fairgrounds, 317 W. Astor. The county Planning Commission will meet there again, at 9 a.m. on June 29, to form its recommendation to county commissioners.

County commissioners are to take final action July 6 during their regular session in the Stevens County Courthouse.



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