King County working on 'friendlier' changes for critical areas ordinance to help agriculture

Capital Press Staff Writer

SEATTLE, WA - 3/25/03— In response to public outcry over its first attempt to update regulations on agricultural lands, King County is working on crafting an alternate land-use proposal that would be friendlier to agriculture.

To meet that goal, it is asking farmers to help find a solution that will preserve farming while protecting water quality and natural resources.

Earlier this month, County Executive Ron Sims sent the the county’s first proposed update of its critical areas

“The typical reaction of a bureaucrat is to regulate something to save it,” he said. “But you can also regulate something like agriculture to death.” - Enumclaw Hereford raiser George Irwin

ordinance back to Agriculture Program staff, requesting more public input on the issue.

“Our county executive and department directors heard the farmers’ dissatisfaction loud and clear,” said dairy farmer Eric Nelson, coordinator of the county’s Agriculture Program. “Farming is so fragile, we need to be careful. We don’t want to do in what’s left of agriculture in this county.”

Farmers called the first proposal, which came out early this year, a “land grab” that would put them out of business. Among their concerns were buffer requirements along waterways and ditches.

And while the first proposal would not have affected most of the existing farming practices in the county’s Agriculture Production Districts, it would have lowered a regulatory hammer on ag land zoned rural — a hot-button issue for small-scale farmers.

Early this week, the county was hoping to have its agricultural land-use alternatives available at public workshops scheduled for this week and next week. It also plans to create a chart that shows how agricultural operations would fare under the new proposal compared to the previous proposal and to current regulations.

Nelson said the alternate proposal follows Skagit County’s recently proposed update of its critical areas ordinance, which calls on farmers to craft farm plans instead of requiring them to put in mandatory buffers.

While livestock owners in King County are already required to have farm plans in place, horticultural operations would now be asked to follow suit.

Those who draw up farm plans would be eligible for some cost-share funding, generated from an existing drainage fee. The county is hoping to leverage that money to obtain additional federal and state funding.

When tackling fish-habitat issues, King County’s alternate proposal — like Skagit County’s recently released proposal — is based on a “do no harm” approach.

“We don’t feel we can regulate for fish recovery,” said Nelson. “We’ll be working within watershed programs on that. We believe we’ll be more effective if we offer incentives for voluntary habitat improvements.”

Enumclaw Hereford raiser George Irwin, who serves on a subcommittee of the county’s Agricultural Commission that has been working on the ordinance update, said some members of the ag community recently met with the writers of the first proposal, as well as with other county staff members, and went through a host of issues point by point.

“I think we’ve made some really significant progress,” he said. “I think people will go for it.”

He believes that an important step in this go-round is that the county is realizing that under the state’s Growth Management Act, it has equal responsibility to protect agriculture and fish. He contrasts that with the first proposal, which gave precedence to protecting fish.

He’s also pleased that under the alternate plan, the county is treating farming outside of the county’s Agriculture Production Districts the same as agriculture within the districts.

“All agriculture in the county is worth saving and needs to be saved,” he said.

Another change Irwin likes is how the county is viewing wetlands within the footprint of a farm.

“Infrastructure (such as a driveway or a barn) that makes a farm viable is being recognized as necessary,” he said. “You’ll still have to get the proper permits, but the county won’t write an ordinance that would automatically prohibit this.”

As for ditches, Irwin said the goal is to us ag science instead of forestry science.

“We’re trying to make it clear that land developed for agriculture is not the same as open space,” he said. “I think they’re beginning to understand that once farmland is no longer an economic entity, it goes fallow and the owner will sell it to someone willing to hold it for future development.”

Irwin believes that the council sincerely wants to protect agriculture — it just doesn’t know how.

“The typical reaction of a bureaucrat is to regulate something to save it,” he said. “But you can also regulate something like agriculture to death.”

Bill Knutsen, a former dairyman who has taken an active role in this issue, is also pleased that the county wants to get more input from farmers.

“It’s more or less a given that this calls for farmers in King County to write some of their own regulations,” he said.

The clock is ticking. The second proposal is due back to senior policy team by March 28. That team will either approve it or make some changes.

A second public review draft of the proposed updates will be released in May, and public comments will be accepted on this draft from May 15 through June 15, 2003.

For more information about critical areas ordinance updates, go to


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