Skagit buffer plan faulted for exemptions

Court orders Wash. county to include more protections for fish, critical areas in plan


OLYMPIA, WA - 3/17/02 - Skagit County is going to have to add more science to its agricultural buffer plan, according to a recent draft of a state Superior Court order.

Counties across the state are closely watching the progress of Skagit’s controversial plan since they will be facing the same challenge of protecting both agriculture and fish as they update their critical areas ordinances.

Although the judge has not yet signed the order, all of the attorneys involved in the case, including those representing Skagit County, have put their names on the order’s dotted line.

Put simply, the court’s order tells the county what it needs to do to fix its buffer plan.

At the top of the list, the court wants the county to develop a buffer option that is supported by best available science - one that protects critical areas while also preserving or enhancing salmon.

In order to protect salmon, the county must also narrow down the exceptions in its buffer program.

In the county’s plan, farmland in the delta - about 80 percent of the county’s farmland - is exempt from the 75-foot buffer requirement.

Under the county’s Managed Agricultural Riparian Plan, the first 50 feet of an agricultural buffer along fish-sensitive waterways must be planted in trees and brush and the next 25 feet in grass. The entire buffer is off bounds to livestock.

MARP is one of several options for county farmers.

Once the judge signs the order, the county will have to meet a deadline in coming up with a scientifically based plan that protects its critical areas and fish.

If the county fails to meet that deadline, the hearings board could send a recommendation to the governor’s office that sanctions be imposed on the county. This could include withholding state funds for various projects.

The Swinomish Indian Tribal Community filed the suit against the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board last September, based on the board’s earlier ruling in favor of the county’s agricultural buffer plan.

In November, the judge ruled that the county’s agricultural buffer plan is short on best available science, doesn’t provide adequate protection for salmon and fails to protect the county’s critical areas.

In earlier interviews, county officials had indicated the county would appeal the court decision. But early this week, John Moffat, the county’s civil attorney, said the tribe and the county are in negotiations to see if they can find common ground.

“We want to move on,” he said.

Moffat warns that the court order sends out an important message to other counties.

“It’s clear that the counties will be under increased scrutiny when they have to update their critical areas ordinances,” he said.

In 1997, the state’s Growth Management Act was amended to require counties to use best available science when crafting their critical areas ordinances, especially in regard to protecting salmon.

The state is requiring counties to update their critical areas ordinances within the next several years, according to recent legislation that proposes to push back the original September 2002 deadline.

Skagit County Commissioner Ted Anderson put it more bluntly.

“Do we ruin agriculture to protect salmon? That appears to be the answer,” he said.

Alix Foster, attorney for the tribe, agrees that the order sends out a clear message to other counties.

“It says you better support your buffer plan with best available science and supply an analysis about why your plan will protect salmon,” she said.

She pointed out that besides protecting agriculture, one of the goals of the Growth Management Act is to maintain and enhance the fisheries industry.

“Fishing was always an important industry in this state,” she said. “Unfortunately, not enough attention has been paid to it.”

Anderson said the county gathered input from scores of scientists and referred to volumes of scientific information in coming up with its buffer plan.

He pointed out that in the ongoing Agriculture, Fish and Water negotiations, the state’s Fish and Wildlife Department has indicated the minimum buffer size it could support is 75 feet, the same buffer size the county is requiring.

Like commissioners in other rural counties, Anderson questions why it’s the rural areas that have to shoulder the burden of salmon recovery. He points to the miles and miles of polluted and unbuffered waterways in urban areas that fish have to swim through before getting to farmland.

“Everyone should share in salmon recovery,” he said. “Instead, they’ve jettisoned it into the rural areas - by design. This isn’t about fish. It’s about controlling land use.”

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