Anticipating a difficult negotiation ahead with state regulators over their recent ban of net-pen salmon farming, the Island County Commissioners are putting high hopes on new legislation proposed in Olympia.
House Bill 1599 would empower cities and counties to prohibit the siting of such facilities in their areas through provisions of long-range planning documents known as shoreline master programs.
If passed, the new law would effectively end a long-standing power struggle between the state Department of Ecology, the agency mandated with reviewing, overseeing and enforcing tenets of the Shoreline Management Act, and junior governments that want more say over what activities are allowed in their areas.
“We should be able to have the ability to control our own waters,” Board Chairwoman Helen Price Johnson.
Aquaculture was a hot topic in Island County years ago, with net pen proposals in Holmes Harbor and an area called Saratoga Cove, between Bells Beach and Fox Spit.
In December, the commissioners wrapped up years of work by approving an update to its shoreline master program. The document will guide development on and along the waterfront for the next 20 years.
Among the many controversial topics discussed, net-pen salmon farming is one of the only issues that saw strong opinion but little argument. Public testimony was overwhelmingly in favor of prohibiting net-pen salmon farming from being allowed anywhere in the county.
The board’s subsequent decision to prohibit non-native fish pens altogether put it in league with Jefferson County, which has been battling it out with the Department of Ecology over its ban of net-pen farming for years.
State Rep. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim, is one of HB 1599’s primary sponsors and Jefferson County Commissioner Phil Johnson has been a key figure behind the proposed legislation.
“The bottom line is they are deleterious to the environment,” Johnson said.
Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton, is not one of the bill’s sponsors but said Friday that she could throw her support behind the bill in its current form.
“As it stands now, I think it’s a good bill, but I want to see it when it comes out of committee,” Smith said.
“Counties should have the ability make their own decision,” she said.
The Island County commissioners are doing what they can to insure the bill’s passage, having unanimously approved and submitted a letter of support.
According to Price Johnson, neither Island or Jefferson counties’ adopted ban is a violation of state law but rather a statement of autonomy when it comes to the permitting of commercial activity.
“We’re asserting our local control over our planning process,” she said.
David Pater, a shoreline planner with Ecology and the official reviewing the county’s plan, said the department’s position is that net-pen farming can’t be banned outright because it’s a water dependent use.
Limiting activities on the water to those that can’t take place anywhere else is one of the cornerstones of the shoreline management act. Ecology has the tricky job of managing that basic tenet with other pillars of the act, such as environmental protection and access to the water.
“We’re trying to manage that balance and that’s the challenge with these SMPs,” Pater said.
The department has communicated several concerns to county officials about restrictions in the update that may go too far and language concerning net-pen farming is one of them.
Pater said he is hopeful that the issues can be worked through cooperatively but acknowledged that the proposed legislation could alter the discussion significantly if passed.
“This bill could change a lot of things,” he said.
It was introduced in the Local Government Committee and a public hearing was held in Olympia Friday afternoon but it was scheduled after press time and could not be reported on. Steve Erickson, representing the Whidbey Environmental Action Network, was planning to speak.
Although Smith does not serve on local government, Rep. Dean Takko, D-Longview, the committee’s chairman, was a bill sponsor. Smith said Friday morning that she would be surprised if the bill didn’t make it out of committee.
Should the bill die, Price Johnson said she would be “patient but persistent” and continue lobbying for the prohibition of net-pen farming in Island County. The public was “loud and clear” in its opposition to their presence anywhere around Whidbey or Camano Islands, she said.
“That’s significant to me,” she said.