Island County to adopt “Band-Aid” critical areas ordinance

County commissioners are planning to adopt a short-term critical areas ordinance to meet a court-ordered deadline.

At their Tuesday, Feb. 17 meeting, the Island County board of commissioners expect to set a public hearing on a temporary critical areas ordinance for 6 p.m. Tuesday, March 24.

This ordinance has been under serious scrutiny since members of the Whidbey Environmental Action Network filed a lawsuit in 2006 saying critical areas, like wetlands and habitats, were not properly protected in agricultural areas.

A Thurston County judge agreed with them last March and ordered that the county update its critical areas ordinance by this year.

The commissioners are instead opting to adopt an interim measure which is allowed under the Growth Management Act, according to Planning Director David Wechner.

“The focus of this effort it to give us a quick fix that is in compliance with the Growth Management Hearings Board that allows us the time to look at things in a more comprehensive fashion,” Wechner said.

Wechner said that this latest incarnation of the critical areas ordinance was adopted in Clallam County and passed muster with the Hearings Board.

Under the temporary ordinance, existing and ongoing agricultural properties zoned as commercial agriculture and rural agriculture will be exempt from the critical areas ordinance, if best management practices are used. In addition, agricultural activities designated as rural will be exempt if they are enrolled in a state agriculture tax program or are subject to a conservation easement.

The exemption will apply to properties that both use best management practices and pre-existed the original 1998 ordinance.

“It’s a Band-Aid,” said Commissioner Jill Johnson. “It’s more specific than what we had before.”

Marianne Edain of WEAN said Thursday the organization is not happy with what appears to be the county’s repeated delays on the ordinance.

“This is the minimum to get off the hot seat and kick it down the line one more time,” Edain said.

Edain said she fears the county has left too many of the more complex issues until the last minute, giving the public little time to consider them properly.

“We’ve been through so many of these processes, the easy ones have been picked out and all the gnarly ones are lumped into the Comprehensive Plan of 2016,” Edain said. “That’s my unhappy prediction.”

The original ordinance was adopted in 1998, and the group challenged the county’s treatment of wetlands on farmland in 2000 and won.

In that case, the Hearings Board agreed in that case that exempting all agriculture from wetland protection without qualification was contrary to the Growth Management Act.