|Skagit buffer plan faulted for
Court orders Wash. county to include
more protections for fish, critical areas in plan
BEECHER, Capital Press
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
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
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
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
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
“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.”