Skagit County adopts ‘bufferless’ ordinance

Capital Press Staff Writer


MOUNT VERNON, Wash. – After years of wrangling with farmers, fisheries scientists, tribal authorities, environmentalists and lawyers, Skagit County has passed a critical-areas ordinance designed to protect fish and agriculture without imposing mandatory buffers on farmland.

Skagit County commissioners have said more times than once that they didn’t expect farmers and the Swinomish Tribal Community to be happy with whatever plan they adopted.

Even so, cattle raiser Norm Mitchell said, “It isn’t too bad.”

“There are things we’re concerned about,” he said, “but there’s no doubt that this is a lot better than other plans that required buffers.”

Earlier plans had called for various buffer widths on ag land along fish-sensitive waterways, some of them as wide as 200 feet.

Swinomish Tribal Community Chairman Brian Cladoosby said he knows the farming community is unhappy with the ordinance and that the tribe has some concerns about it, too.

“We haven’t made a decision on the strategy we’ll be taking on the new ordinance,” he said, explaining that chinook salmon runs are a big concern for the tribe.

The Puget Sound chinook was listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act in 1999.

And while some farmers complain about tribal nets in the river and wonder why they should be forced to change land-use practices to protect salmon when the tribe is out there netting them, Cladoosby said those tribal nets are directed at healthy runs of pink and chum salmon – not chinook.

Tom Karsh, Natural Resource Policy administrator for Skagit County, said the underlying principle of the new ordinance is simple to understand.

It requires property owners with ongoing agriculture on land zoned “agriculture” or “natural resource” to do no harm or degradation to water quality or the needs of fish.

Karsh said that includes meeting state water-quality standards and could include requirements to abide by future cleanup plans known as TMDLs.

Watercourse protection measures are also part of the equation. Karsh explained that the county recognizes that activities done in those areas will need to be done correctly, which could include fencing and managing livestock access to waterways.

Appropriate manure management near waterways is also part of the ordinance, with no manure spreading allowed near waterways from Oct. 31 to March 1.

Areas that livestock congregates around, water troughs and fencelines, for example, must be managed so sediment doesn’t flow into a waterway.

And driveways and access roads must be designed so undesirable sediment and other pollutants don’t get into the waterways.

The ordinance also puts ordinary citizens into the role of watchdog. Anyone who believes a landowner is harming water quality or fish can call the county or the state’s Department of Ecology.

If the county believes a complaint has merit, it may turn it over to Ecology for investigation and possible enforcement.

But enforcement of the ordinance will be delayed until Jan. 1, 2004.

Although the county met a court-imposed order to come up with a plan that protects fish and agriculture by June 26, it will still have to defend the new ordinance when it goes in front of the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board on Aug. 26.

At that time, those who oppose the ordinance will have a chance to explain why they believe it doesn’t do enough for or does too much for fish.

Karsh concedes that the county won’t be surprised if the ordinance is legally contested.

“We’ve clearly drawn a line in the sand between restoration and enhancement, and conservation and protection,” he said. “We don’t believe the state’s Growth Management requires we restore habitat. The tribe disagrees with that interpretation.”

The county is basing its approach on this issue on Superior Court Judge Christine Pomeroy’s decision earlier this year that said the state’s Growth Management Act requires “conservation protection,” not “enhancement” of fish habitat.

The tribe has filed an appeal of Pomeroy’s decision in state Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, Karsh is quick to agree that estuarine habitat for fish needs to be improved, adding that there is a considerable amount of money available for landowners who would want to work with the county on restoring lowland estuarine conditions.


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