Skagit backs off buffer rule for farmland - Public can offer alternatives at June 25 meeting

Capital Press Staff Writer

MOUNT VERNON, Wash.6/23/02 - Faced with stiff opposition from its agricultural community, Skagit County officials have decided to drop buffer requirements on farmland and to look instead for other ways to protect fish.

As part of that search, the county will hold a public meeting to gather ideas about possible alternatives to buffers at 6:30 p.m., June 25, in the Skagit Valley College cafeteria.

Until the county comes up with an alternative solution, buffers will remain law.

Ric Boge, natural resources project manager for the county, said the county commissioners want to start by asking everybody for ideas on how the county can protect fish while at the same time keeping agriculture viable, as required by the state’s Growth Management Act.

“The Growth Management Act doesn’t specifically require buffers,” said Boge. “Maybe there’s something other than buffers that can do this.”

Under the county’s critical areas law, farmers outside the delta have several options they can choose from to protect fish. One of those is putting in buffers made up of trees, brush and grass.

The goal is to provide fish with cool, clean water; cover; feed; and spawning and rearing habitat.

But farmers say that overly wide buffers will take too much of their land out of production and put their livelihoods in jeopardy.

The county’s most recent buffer requirement of 75 feet was shot down in court for not being salmon-friendly enough.

Farmers also question why timber science, which requires buffers along waterways, is being used on low-elevation farmland.

Under a recently awarded grant, scientists are conducting a comprehensive review about ways to protect fish in agricultural riparian areas. They hope to come up with fish-friendly land-use practices that won’t push farmers out of business.

Farmers and ag groups are referring to Skagit County’s buffer wars as “ground zero.” Many fear that when it’s time for their own counties to update their critical laws in the next two or three years, what happens in Skagit County will serve as a precedent.

A lot of this has to do with timing. An amendment to the state’s Growth Management Act requires that best available science be used when updating critical areas laws. Skagit County is the first county in the state to tackle that challenge.

Earlier this year, a Superior Court judge ruled that the county’s buffer plan was short on science and that the county needed to fix its critical areas law in 120 days.

The July deadline to do this is fast approaching. Yet if the county wants to drop its buffer requirement and start all over, it needs to hold public hearings as part of the process of coming up with a solution. Under those conditions, February would be the soonest it could come up with an alternative plan.

But that puts the county at legal risk. If it fails to meet the court’s 120-day deadline, there’s the possibility that sanctions, withholding of state funds, for example, could be invoked against the county.


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