Whidbey Environmental Action Network wins critical areas lawsuit

Steve Erickson, a founding member of Whidbey Environmental Action Network, addresses the Island County Commissioners at a meeting in December 2012.  - Justin Burnett / Record file
Steve Erickson, a founding member of Whidbey Environmental Action Network, addresses the Island County Commissioners at a meeting in December 2012.
— image credit: Justin Burnett / Record file

A Thurston County judge has agreed with a local environmental group that two Island County ordinances dealing with wetlands on farmland must be revised. The Island County commissioners have since supported a staff recommendation not to appeal the decision.

“We disagree with the Thurston County ruling,” Planning Director David Wechner told county commissioners Monday night. “Nevertheless we see no advantage in appealing.”

A lawsuit was filed by the Whidbey Environmental Action Network in 2006 when the Island County commissioners adopted two ordinances dealing with critical areas, such as wetlands, in agricultural areas.

The group unsuccessfully challenged the ordinance to the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board, and went on to file the lawsuit in Thurston County Superior Court.

The group initially challenged the county’s treatment of wetlands on farmland back in 2000 and won. The hearings board agreed in that case that a county ordinance exempting all agriculture from wetland protection was contrary to the Growth Management Act on 1990.

Wechner recommended Monday that the county respond to the hearings board with a plan to revise the ordinances by 2016, the deadline for a mandatory ordinance update already in process.

“Staff is confident that a review based on new data with all the stakeholders involved will result in Island County agriculture and environmental protection,” Wechner said.

Public Health Director Keith Higman agreed with Wechner that the ordinance they would be defending in an appeal would be from 2005 and is likely outdated anyway.

WEAN representatives could not reached for comment in time for this story.

Last year, the group’s founder Steve Erickson said his main concern with the ordinances was that under the current regulation, the farm management plans required of farmers would not be available to the public and that the plans were not enforceable.

Commissioner Helen Price Johnson said she did not agree with the Thurston County ruling, but moving forward with a revision was the best way to use the county’s “scant” resources.

“It’s time to put a stop to this long protracted court battle,” Price Johnson said.

The 2006 lawsuit was stayed several years ago after the Legislature asked the William D. Ruckelshaus Center to come up with a solution for regulating critical areas, which had become a state-wide debate.

The center finally proposed the Voluntary Stewardship Program, which would have required the county to set up new watershed groups that would create work plans, but the commissioners voted to opt out of the program last year.

Commissioner Kelly Emerson said Monday she’d like to see the stewardship program reconsidered by the county and that she was “deeply saddened that we are still using resources on this.”

She said that the ruling should be “a warning to voters to do their homework” in choosing decision-makers who make decisions that affect a lawsuit.

Commissioner Jill Johnson supported the staff recommendation but defended the work of past leadership.

“This work is work we would have to do anyway, regardless of the outcome of that legal process,” Johnson said. “It’s a much wiser use of our tax dollars. This in no way implies that the work done previously by the community was without merit or was faulty. I support your recommendation; I think it’s the best course for our county.”


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