A farmer’s right to maintain drainage ditches without regulation was at the core of Monday’s debate on fish and wildlife protections at the Island County commissioners meeting.
Unable to reach consensus on the issue, the commissioners delayed adopting the document and agreed to revisit the discussion at their Sept. 3 work session and Sept. 8 regular meeting.
At the heart of their debate was the need to adopt government-mandated regulations without creating obstacles for farms within critical areas. Under the current draft, farmers with drainage ditches categorized as regulated streams would be required to go through an expensive permitting and inspection process to perform basic ditch maintenance.
“It would put us out of business,” said Daryl VanderPool, owner of Maxwelton Farm. “We would be done.”
Several farmers at the Aug. 25 meeting encouraged the commissioners to revisit the requirements that would affect the island’s farming community.
“This was a poorly drafted ordinance before it got to you,” said Ray Gabelein. “You’re going to have to do a lot of work on it to get it where it needs to be.”
Christine Williams said that all the farms on Whidbey are connected, and placing undue restrictions on some of the farms would affect the entire “web of farming” negatively.
“I really think we need to be very careful,” she said.
Commissioner Helen Price Johnson tried to get support for an across-the-board exemption for ditch maintenance on existing and ongoing farm operations, but failed to gain traction.
“Clearly there’s confusion about what is there,” Price Johnson said. “I share the concern.”
County Planner Brad Johnson said he believes that such an exemption would run afoul of the Growth Management Act (GMA) requirements they are trying to meet.
“My understanding of the GMA requirements is that we are supposed to be balancing these interests,” Price Johnson responded.
Commissioner Jill Johnson said that exempting regulated streams in agricultural areas would be against the spirit of the fish and wildlife protection regulations.
“What this whole exercise is about is the protection of fish and wildlife,” Johnson said. “Although this is not how the generation before us farmed, this is the new world that we’re living in now. And one of the expectations is that we are not going to engage in behavior that causes known environmental harm. When you talk about some of these ditches that are also streams, that is going to be an area of conflict.”
Before their next discussion, commissioners directed staff to more clearly define “regulated stream” to clarify for farmers who would be affected by the regulation.
While farmers took issue with the ditch regulations, members of the Whidbey Environmental Action Network (WEAN) said the findings of fact and the updated ordinance fall short of the goal to protect fish and wildlife.
“These are not findings, they are justification for not doing the right thing,” said Marianne Edain of WEAN.
The group has challenged the county’s wetland regulations in the past to the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board. Edain said they will do it again if necessary.
“We don’t want to have to go back to the hearings board,” Edain said. “We’re going to be back all over this.”
If the commissioners choose to make substantive changes to the regulations, a third public hearing will be scheduled.