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County-wide questionnaire’s purpose debated

A questionnaire mailed to Island County landowners last month has apparently cracked even further the fragile relationship between some environmentalists and the county government.

The latest point of contention began when the state Court of Appeals ruled that the lack of records kept by the county about who engages in agricultural activities led to its decision to end special protection for some farmers in the county. Those special protections, which have been in place since 2000, are called Agricultural Best Management Practices, or AG BMPs.

To meet the requirements of the court’s ruling, the county sent a two-page questionnaire to about 28,000 landowners last month in hopes of compiling a better record about all of the landowners who engage in agricultural activities.

Some questions included: property address, zoning of property, acres of land the person owns, if any ditches, streams, wetlands or wet areas exist on the property and the type of agricultural activity, such as livestock or crop cultivation.

The questionnaire also contained a fact sheet about the Agricultural Best Management Practices, which have governed agricultural activities in the county since 2000. The final page provided the time, location and a description of why the public hearings were being held by the county in Coupeville and on Camano Island last month.

Jeff Tate, the Island County assistant planning director, said he thinks the 11 questions on the questionnaire contain balanced, straightforward questions. He said the other three pages were intended to give a description of why the changes are happening.

“It is showing people why this is done,” he said.

Members of the Whidbey Environmental Action Network, however, point to the inflammatory language and frequent naming of their organization in both the questionnaire and ordinance as proof that the county does not want to gather objective information and strives to make landowners biased against WEAN.

Steve Erickson, a WEAN spokesperson, said the conflict began with Keith Dearborn’s “rant” in late March in which Dearborn, the attorney hired by the county to review the Critical Areas Ordinance, said environmentalists have “burned their bridges.” Since then, Erickson said the county has only wanted to hear from people who do not want the AG BMP or any other changes to the Critical Areas ordinance.

Opposing viewpoints to the CAO was evident last week, when more than 350 people filled the Coupeville Elementary auditorium, and an estimated 500 people were turned away for the second public hearing. At the meeting, the county made ample time to inform the public of why they needed to create a set of reports necessary to overturn the courts’ ruling against the Ag BMPs. Although WEAN was mentioned in both the Ordinance and the questionnaire, they were given only several minutes to comment.

Many people at the hearing spoke in favor of the AG BMPs, where farms are left to manage their land, balancing environmental concerns with specific land use. Environmentalist blame the questionnaire, which was sent out weeks before the hearings, for some of the hard feelings people have toward WEAN.

Erickson pointed out that both his name and WEAN where included in both the questionnaire and the ordinance which will legally end AG BMPs for farmers who operate in rural zones.

“It is bizarre to put a name in an ordinance,” he said.

Tate said WEAN and Erickson were specifically mentioned to show people which organization prompted the change.

The county mentioned WEAN four times in the questionnaire and five times on the first page of ordinance amending the county’s comprehensive plan. The county named Erickson as the leader of WEAN on the front page of the ordinance, as well.

Legal background

The Court of Appeals made the decision after WEAN filed a lawsuit in which WEAN members argued that the AG BMPs did not adequately the protect the environment. Instead, WEAN stated only agricultural activities conducted on land zoned for either commercial or rural agricultural should receive AG BMP recognition.

Commercial and rural agriculture accounts for 10,000 acres in the county while the other farming occurs in a portion of the 105,000 acres zoned for rural use in the county. Rural agriculture use requires 10 acres of land and commercial use requires 20 acres.

The Court of Appeals decision requires the county to widen the stream buffers in all rural zones from 25 feet to at least 50 feet. Rural zoning includes property with not less than five acres.

The county did appeal the ruling, but the state Supreme Court denied the county’s challenge on March 29 stating there was not enough reporting to constitute a well-researched change. The county holds that the BMPs are a best balance between property rights and environmental protection.

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