Jefferson County's draft critical areas ordinance in effect establishes a default buffer of 450 feet from sensitive environmental features such as wetlands. As written, property owners who want to build something or change the way they use their land within 450 feet of a critical area cannot do so unless they hire an expert to demonstrate that the project will not damage the critical area. Those who cannot or choose not to pay for an expert must not encroach on the 450-foot distance.
The ordinance has been influenced by two agreements between the county and the Washington Environmental Council (WEC), a state-wide environmental group that includes the Olympic Peninsula-based Olympic Environmental Council. WEC has contested the county's land use regulations before the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board.
In January 2006, WEC and the county signed an agreement whereby the county is to confer with WEC in adopting and implementing regulations for critical areas. The agreement also provides that WEC can seek additional regulatory requirements with respect to agricultural exemptions "if it concludes that the voluntary compliance program is failing to meet its (WEC's) objective to pro0tect wetland and fish habitat areas from impacts related to agriculture."
After reviewing public records, Belenski concluded that WEC had eight months (April through December of 2005) to negotiate with the county and provide a checklist it wanted the county to use. After the second agreement was signed, the county spent about six months preparing for the June 20 hearing where farmers and other landowners protested.
"The farmers didn't get to give one of those [checklists]: I didn't get to give one of those," said Belenski. "The public got one ceremonial meeting."
Belenski finds it ironic that the agreement with WEC states that "The county will commit staff and resources to collaborate with other stakeholders" when many of those stakeholders, particularly farmers, have complained that they were given no meaningful opportunity for input prior to the county's attempt to adopt the CAO on June 20.
Commissioner Phil Johnson (D-Port Townsend) said that it took longer than expected to prepare the draft ordinance, leaving elected officials — and opponents — without enough time to review it. "I think we're listening to everyone," said Commissioner David Sullivan (D-Cape George).
The county and WEC had agreed to adopt the CAO by June 18, 2006. After loud protests from the public, the county extended the deadline to Jan. 18, 2007, and is working with people who want input in the process.
Belenski's suit seeks to nullify the county's agreement with WEC. But he cautions that even if he wins, WEC can still make its case to the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board, and his lawsuit might not directly affect that body's proceedings.