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Farmers balk at more regulation

"Photo: Chad Felgar, manager of Maxwelton Farms, holds a copy of the proposed best management practices which farmers fear may overly regulate their operations.Jim Larsen / staff photo Next meeting for farmersThe Island County Commissioners will hold another public hearing on best management practices on Wednesday, Feb. 9 at 6 p.m. in the Commissioners Hearing Room of the Courthouse Annex in Coupeville. A new draft of the proposed regulations will be available on Jan. 21. Whidbey Island farmers say they are fed up with regulations. This week they told the Island County Commissioners to take the state to court rather than impose more restrictions on how they use their land. About 40 people packed a public hearing in Coupeville Monday night to complain about a new set of proposed laws called best management practices or BMPs. The laws outline procedures agricultural land owners must follow to protect nearby environmentally critical areas such as streams and wetlands. Some in the crowd said the proposed rules were too weak to give adequate protection. But the majority of the crowd came to tell the commissioners that they are already overburdened with regulation and that more laws will simply put them out of business. Following an onslaught of complaints, the commissioners chose to delay any action on the new laws until Feb. 9 and invited additional written public comment on the issue. Farmers say it's unnecessaryBill Steiner of Clinton said the proposed best management practices are unnecessary because the water quality of local streams and wetlands is regularly tested and is currently not a problem. “If it’s fine ... why would you change what I’m doing?” he asked the commissioners. “Use a little common sense for us. We’re working hard.” But Island County Commissioner Mac McDowell said tougher environmental laws are inevitable. In fact, the state’s Growth Management Act currently requires all agricultural activities to follow strict critical area rules. These include buffer zones along streams and wetlands and strict guidelines on grazing and water runoff. Though larger commercial farming operations can often deal with such regulations, many of the small, private farm operators said they could stand to lose the use of land they have been working for generations. “It’s difficult to run a farm. The last few years it’s been scary,” said South Whidbey property owner Claudia VanderPol. She said she is very interested in protecting the environment but said any blanket set of laws won’t work because farming practices vary so much from year to year depending on conditions. “It’s a little more complicated than people who haven’t farmed understand.” Chad Felgar manages VanderPol's Maxwelton Farms operation, which raises young heifers and sells them to dairy farms when they reach maturity. He said Thursday that the proposed county rules come on top of existing regulations from such agencies as the Department of Ecology, Department of Natural Resources, and USDA. Now we've got county rules, too, Felgar said, shaking his head. He was disturbed by such proposals in the best management practices as not allowing any livestock in fields from Nov. 1 to March 31, and not allowing more than two adult animals per acre in a field. Board rejected ag exemptionsThe commissioners have said repeatedly that small farms are a key part of Island County’s rural character. When they first wrote critical area rules into the county’s Comprehensive Plan more than a year ago, they added an exemption from the regulations for existing agricultural operations on any land zoned as Commercial Agriculture, Rural Agriculture or Rural. But the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board said such an exemption violated the Growth Management Act. They told the county to limit the exemption to Commercial Agriculture-zoned property only. The commissioners now believe that they can challenge the board’s decision and keep the exemption for the other zones as long as farmers in those areas follow the best management practice rules. Other counties have adopted similar laws successfully. Commissioner Mike Shelton tried to explain that the new BMP regulations were actually a way to help small farms. He said he heard farmers telling the county to leave them alone. “On some level I’d like to say I agree with that,” Shelton said. “But the fact is we have to protect critical areas.” He added that the best management practice proposal was the best the county could offer under existing state law. Laws still in the proposal stageThe commissioners reminded the crowd that the proposed regulations are still being developed and that nothing is final. But any new laws at all seemed to be too much for some. “The Comprehensive Plan says to protect rural character,” said Ray E. Gabelein of South Whidbey. “It doesn’t say return Island County to the wild.” Gabelein said many rural farms currently use bottom land or wet meadows. He said restricting grazing and planting from these areas would likely drive farmers from their property and leave the land covered in blackberries. “Quit letting a very small group such as WEAN (Whidbey Environmental Action Network) lead us around like a bunch of idiots,” said Gabelein. Even large-parcel farmers joined in. Central Whidbey dairy farmer Ron Muzzall told the commissioners that regulations are increasing while prices for farm products are declining. He said more than a dozen government agencies currently oversee his farm operation. “We have to look at critical areas, there’s no doubt. But we have to look at a balance ... it’s not in the farmer’s favor,” Muzzall said. But the commissioners also caught flak from those who feel it’s the environment that is most at risk. “Critical areas are called critical areas for a reason — they’re critical,” said Gary Piazzon, a member of the Citizens Growth Management Coalition. “They are critical to our health and well-being.” Jennifer Lail of WEAN said environmental laws are bound to get tougher as time goes on. She said it is better to work out regulations on a local level rather than wait for state and federal agencies to take action. But Tom Roehl of Greenbank, who said he was speaking on behalf of the Property Rights Alliance and others, said local regulations don’t replace federal and state laws, they just add to them. He said the commissioners should say enough is enough and fight back. “Do the right thing and let the courts figure it out,” he firmly told the commissioners. “If the Growth Management Hearings Board doesn’t like it, take them to court.”"

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