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Farm Bureau challenges county’s new Critical Areas Ordinance

Posted 10/30/2012

by Steve Brown
Capital Press

The state and county Farm Bureaus have appealed the updated Critical Areas Ordinance filed by the Thurston County Commission, claiming it doesn’t abide by the state’s rules.

John Stuhlmiller, director of government relations at the Washington Farm Bureau, said the state’s Voluntary Stewardship Program includes the commitment “to make no changes as it relates to agriculture.”

But the Thurston County Farm Bureau claims the county government did just that when it split farming into “existing” and “new” and then applied different rules to each. It also failed to define what “change of use” is.

Every county in Washington that agreed to participate in the stewardship program committed to involving farmers and other landowners in updating its Critical Areas Ordinance. The ordinance addresses issues including agriculture, wetlands and aquifers, preserving and protecting land from urban impacts.

“What makes this a statewide issue is that if you don’t enforce the law, it means nothing,” he said. “The other 27 (counties) could follow and we’d lose all we’ve gained. … No area of state law is more controversial than the Critical Areas Ordinance. That’s what led to the VSP approach.”

Jeff Fancher, the county’s deputy prosecuting attorney, said that in his opinion the county commissioners abided by state law in updating the ordinance.

Fancher’s office is responsible for providing legal advice to elected officials and offices.

“They listened to public comment, they heard from the Farm Bureau and did what the Farm Bureau asked them to — to make no substantive changes as they applied to agricultural lands,” he said.

Because of the stewardship program’s provision not to make changes, “They made sure the old CAO applied to agriculture,” Fancher said. “Many changes made after public hearing were to make that point — that the older ordinance was the one that applied to agricultural lands.”

But Raul De Leon, president of the county Farm Bureau, said when farmers and rural residents sought to discuss with county government some alternatives that would promote ag and preserve the environment, they were rebuffed.

“The commissioners dismissed efforts to develop consensus language and adopted this ordinance without allowing the public to comment on the final draft,” he said. “We believe that the commissioners’ actions were illegal, unwise and just plain wrong. They left us no choice except to file this appeal.”

In its appeal, the county Farm Bureau claims the county commission:

* Failed to provide adequate public process.

* Added provisions affecting agricultural uses and lands.

* Attempted to define “existing” and “new” agricultural uses and then regulate both in a discriminatory, arbitrary and illegal fashion, including different fees and permits.

Stuhlmiller said the state Farm Bureau’s legal foundation has “adopted” the case and will help argue the issue before the state Growth Management Hearings Board.

Fancher said the petition for review will be heard by the board’s three members on April 12. They will render a decision by May 24.

In the meantime, Stuhlmiller said, the Bureau is trying to reach a settlement out of court.

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