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Farm rules come to the fore

In the opinion of Island County’s commissioners and planning director, some of Island County’s farmers may be at risk of losing the use of a majority of their land.

But in the opinion of one Whidbey Island environmental activism group, the only party at risk is the environment itself.

New rules and regulations approved by the Board of Island County Commissioners on April 18 eliminate the exemptions from the county’s Critical Areas ordinance some rural farmers enjoy. The most immediate consequence of the decision will be the expansion of buffer zones on small, seasonal streams in the county’s Rural zone, from the previous 25 feet to 50 feet.

Some farmers say the action could hurt the operations of everyone from farmers to gardeners.

Amy Richards owns approximately 8 acres east of Oak Harbor. Once the new rules take effect, it will leave only one half of an acre available for her organic foods farm that feeds about 50 people.

“I get no vacations; this is what I do,” she said. “For my family, our whole life is feeding Whidbey Island residents.”

She fears the new restrictions will put her out of business.

In Island County, farmers must obey what are called best management practices. These outline rules such as livestock concentration, crop rotation and watering practices. A majority of the farming in Island County occurs on land that is zoned rural. Rural lands are those that are a minimum 5 acres in size and can be used for anything from a small fire station to the growing, harvesting, sale and managing of agricultural products.

The rural zone accounts for up to 60 percent of Island County’s land, or approximately 80,000 acres.

Last month, the Washington State Supreme Court denied an appeal of the stream buffer rule by Island County, setting in motion a series of required rule changes that could affect thousands of properties in the county, said Island County Planning Director Phil Bakke.

Under the new rules, property owners with rural-zoned lands must obey the county’s critical areas ordinance, which mandates the protection of environmentally sensitive areas. Previously, these land owners — if involved in agriculture — were regulated by Island County’s agricultural best management practices, a more flexible set of rules that did not make certain streams and wetlands off-limits for farm use.

The change means that anyone with a small stream running through a hay field must have a 50-foot setback instead of the current 25 feet. If a pasture has a spot that does not dry up, it can be classified as a “wet pasture,” forcing the cessation of all farm activities in that pasture.

This could be a major concern for local farmers. Beginning Jan. 1, 2006, many people raising livestock, will no longer be able to continue, according to Island County’s Bakke. However, Island County has no hard numbers to back up this statement; Bakke said he has little data showing how many farmers have streams, wetlands and other critical areas on their lands — let alone showing how many people are farming in Island County or where that farming is being done.

The new county ordinances do not affect farmers in the Commercial Agriculture or Rural Agriculture zones.

An end of an era?

Oak Harbor farmer Ron Muzzall’s daughters are the fifth generation of his family to tend to the crops and cows on his properties. They live in the house his great-grandparents built in 1912, a few years after they began farming just outside of Oak Harbor.

“It is so absolutely unfair,” Muzzall said of the new regulations. “If this was a golf course, we wouldn’t be discussing this. If this was houses, we wouldn’t be discussing this.”

Muzzall owns several parcels that are edged by a steep bluff overlooking Penn Cove, which is also a critical area. Once the new regulations take effect, he will have to obey a 50-foot setback, essentially eliminating about half of the land available on those parcels for grazing cattle.

“We can’t farm within 50 feet, yet you can build a house right up to the bluff,” Muzzall said while pointing to a neighbor’s home that is perched neatly above a steep drop to the Sound.

Since hearing of the impending changes, he has begun to consider dividing the Rural-zoned land and allowing homes to be built on smaller chunks of his land. He said he has already secured water rights that would allow him to short plat for up to 44 homes in the area.

“This is forcing us to look at developing,” he said. “If we don’t farm this land, we lose our agricultural tax exemption. And we can’t afford to live here without that.”

Further up North Whidbey, Sunny C Ranch owner Gail Cerullo pets a cow she has raised since birth that comes when called. Cerullo said that a pond she built to give migrating birds a place to rest could mean the end of her horse grazing area.

“By changing this, it could have a huge impact on activities that have been going on since the ‘40s,” she said.

Much of Cerullo’s 120 acres are exempt from the critical areas ordinance, but fall under what she sees as the equally cumbersome best management practices. Her neighbor to the north has a seasonal pond that would require setbacks that encroach on to her property.

In addition, the sanctuary afforded visiting birds by a mule that chases away coyotes is also in jeopardy.

“I’m almost forced to go out and and puncture the bottom of the pond,” she said.

The new rules will also limit the number of cattle she can keep on the remainder of her property. The management plan outlines a density of animals that she must follow, and the exclusion of some pasture land would put her already small herd at risk. She said this could be especially harmful to future farmers.

“They won’t learn how to take care of the animals,” she said.

Cerullo also raises a type of sheep that does not grow the traditional wool. These hair sheep are unusual to Whidbey Island.

“If we get cut down to where we can’t have them,” she said, “a lot of kids who come out — they might not get to see a hair sheep.”

A mandated change

In 1998, a committee of farmers, scientists and environmentalists developed a standard for agriculture in Island County. These “best management practices” (BMPs) were to allow established farms a means to continue farming near environmentally sensitive areas.

All the people came away from the work satisfied with the new rules, except Whidbey Environmental Action Network, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting Whidbey’s natural resources.

WEAN spokeswoman Marianne Edain said that WEAN “disinvited” from the committee and was told the only way its members could be involved would be if the group gave up its right to appeal any decisions made and to abide by the majority opinion of the committee. Island County Commissioner Mike Shelton characterized WEAN’s involvement differently, saying this week that the group walked away from those discussions.

The agricultural BMPs were not adopted until 2000, at which point WEAN appealed three key aspects to the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board, the appointed body that has judicial authority over growth issues.

“We support small-scale agriculture and farming,” WEAN spokesman Steve Erickson said. “We just don’t support them in wetlands and their buffers.”

The hearings board upheld the county’s rules for all areas except those zoned rural. This case exhausted all judicial avenues, leaving the county to establish new rules for rural land that is used for agriculture.

At the April 18 commissioners meeting, Phil Bakke characterized the rules in a bleak manner.

“We do not feel this is a fair or equitable regulation,” he said. “In many instances, the lack of an ability to comply with the ag BMPs will have the effect of ending farming on rural land.”

Also pushing the issue is a letter WEAN sent to the hearings board seeking financial sanctions against the county.

WEAN’s Marianne Edain said that WEAN is not pushing to end farming in Island County. Rather, the group’s primary focus is the protection of dwindling natural resources.

“All of this screaming about the world coming to an end is a hair bit on the exaggerated hysterical side,” she said. “If they are so serious about farming, why don’t they go into the rural ag (zone)?”

WEAN’s appeal of buffer zones or setbacks from for Type 5 streams is of particular concern to some county officials. A type 5 stream typically runs for a short period of time during heavy rains.

“Some people would call these ditches,” Bakke said. “They are very difficult to identify and are small and intermittent.”

For now, just how widespread the effects of the new rules — or how long they will last — are unknown. In the April 18 meeting, and again this week, Commissioner Mike Shelton stated that the board of commissioners will work to build a record of testimony from Island County farmers that will support putting BMPs back in place for all agriculture in the county, regardless of zoning.

“We want to go back to best management practices,” he said Monday.

Marianne Edain said she believes the sudden ordinance changes and the commissioners’ vocal stance on the issue are intended to direct a current review of the county’s Critical Areas ordinance.

“They intend to use the CAO review to get back to where they want to be,” she said.

Questioned on that point this week, neither Shelton nor Bakke refuted this point.

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