County wins battle against WEAN on state sanctions

A state growth management hearings board has rejected a request by the Whidbey Environmental Action Network for economic sanctions against Island County.

Whidbey Environmental Action Network, commonly called WEAN, asked the growth board early this year to press for sanctions against Island County. WEAN accused the county of dragging its feet in its efforts to create new rules for farming in rural areas.

The county's efforts to create new rules for farming and protecting sensitive areas like streams and wetlands from agricultural activities have raised a bumper crop of controversy this year.

WEAN intensified its request for sanctions in late September.

The group criticized a county questionnaire on farming that was sent to 28,000 property owners, and WEAN said the county was conducting a "concerted campaign of misinformation" to cause fear and alarm about the future of farming in Island County.

WEAN also said the county was trying to "blame the messenger" by highlighting WEAN's role in the legal challenges to the county's agriculture rules.

But in a decision made Wednesday, the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board said sanctions were not needed.

The board, one of three set up to handle disputes over growth planning in Washington, said the county was making progress in rewriting its rules. The board will not ask the governor to impose sanctions and withhold tax money due to Island County.

"While we understand WEAN's position that the county's regulations have been out of compliance since 1999, we also acknowledge that it is in the nature of legal challenges that they can take years to resolve in the courts," the growth board said in its decision. "At this point, we do not believe that the county is unreasonably delaying undertaking its compliance efforts."

County officials said the decision would mean the work now underway to create new rules for farming on rural lands could continue to move ahead. The latest set of proposed regulations is now being reviewed by the county's planning commission.

"I think it's a significant win for the county," said Jeff Tate, assistant planning director for Island County.

"It gives us the time to work on this issue," he said.

"It's a big deal to us. We consider it a big victory."

WEAN spokesman Steve Erickson said the board decision didn't cover whether the county's new approach on ag rules will comply with the state's Growth Management Act. The Growth Management Act protects farm and forest lands from urban sprawl.

"They've basically just punted -- we'll give the county a little bit more time to see what they come up with," Erickson said. "They basically said we'll wait and see."

Still, Erickson he said the county was wasting time this year that could have been spent resolving the problems with its regulations that cover farming and environmental protections.

"The county's engaged in a full-blown campaign, spending tens of thousands of dollars on misleading people. That's what they did all through the spring and through the summer instead of focusing on the real issues," Erickson said.

Tate, however, said there was a valid reason for the questionnaire, despite the alarm it caused for some.

The county needed to create a substantial record for its rewrite of the farming rules, and the survey was one way to get information.

"Putting that aside, from an implementation point of view, the planning department did not want people to find out the rules had changed when the enforcement officer showed up on their property."

The planning commission is expected to make a recommendation on the new farm rules on Nov. 22.

The planning commission will hold another public hearing on the farm rules Dec. 13; that meeting will largely be devoted to discussing farm plans.

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