WALLA WALLA - Walla Walla County commissioners are seeking comments on a proposed program that deals with a potentially contentious land issue.
Commissioners will hold a public hearing Monday on the Voluntary Stewardship Program, which intends to balance the needs of farmers and ranchers while protecting critical areas on agriculture lands.
The program was established by the state Legislature this year and put under the direction of the Washington State Conservation Commission. So far, only Lewis and Kittitas counties have opted to join the program.
The idea behind the program is to provide an alternative for counties faced with updating their existing Critical Areas regulations to make them applicable to agricultural activities. Prior to the end of this year, critical areas regulations applied to agricultural areas, but not agricultural activities. Those were exempted pending completion of a study by the Ruckelshaus Center and subsequent action by the state Legislature.
The Walla Walla County commissioners have until Jan. 21 to decide whether to opt into the program or pursue an update of the county's existing Critical Areas regulations as applied to agricultural activities. If the county does not opt into the program, it will have two years to review and update its regulations.
According to the state Conservation Commission, the long-term goal of the program is to allow ongoing agricultural production in sensitive areas in such a way as to protect the environment, yet still allow economically viable farming and ranching.
The intent is also to avoid challenges and lawsuits between agricultural groups, environmentalists, landowners and state agencies over such rules as buffers between working farmlands and streams.
At a workshop in October, commissioners discussed the possible pros and cons of the program with staff members and representatives of farm and watershed groups. Participants agreed that while the program holds the promise to protect critical areas on agricultural lands through voluntary actions by farmers, ranchers and landowners, many questions still need to be answered.
Commissioners also worried that what appeared to be a straightforward deal would turn out otherwise.
"I keep asking myself, ‘what's the catch here?'" Commissioner Greg Tompkins said.
One major issue is funding. At this time, there is no funding from the state available for the development and implementation and maintenance of the program, said Tom Glover, Walla Walla Joint Community Development Agency director
"So opting in at this point buys the county time in the sense that it extends the implementation period of the critical areas regulations on agricultural activities. But it does not relieve the county of the obligation to plan for the eventual application of the regulations, in some form, on agricultural activities," he told commissioners in an Oct. 31 memo.
However, if and when funding is available and the county has opted in, it will be expected to produce a viable, approved program, Glover said. So while opting in at this point buys the county time, it wouldn't relieve it of the obligation to plan for eventual application of the regulations, in some form, on agricultural activities.
Also, if it opts in, the county cannot opt out for three years, Glover said.
"So, if during that first three years after it has opted in, that money becomes available, the county has to start working on the program before it can opt out. And, if the county decides at that time to opt out, it will then have 18 months to complete an update to its Critical Areas Regulations in regards to agricultural activities," Glover said.
Another question raised during the October workshop was who would be responsible for defending the county's Critical Areas plan if it opted into the Voluntary Stewardship Program.
If the state Conservation Commission "approved the plan, are they the ones to defend it? Or will it be the county?" one commissioner asked.
Yet another issue facing the county if it decides to opt into the program would be choosing which watersheds would be included in the planning.
If the decision is to include all watersheds in the county, plans would have to cover the Walla Walla River Watershed including the Touchet and Mill Creek watersheds, the Snake River Watershed and its tributaries within the county and the portion of the Columbia River and its tributaries within the county, including areas around Burbank and Wallula.
On the net
Walla Walla Joint Community Development Agency - www.wwjcda.org
Washington State Conservation Commission - ubne.ws/vyaaCq
The public hearing on the Voluntary Stewardship Program will be 1:30 p.m. Monday.
It will be at the Walla Walla County commissioners' meeting room, Public Health and Legislative Building, 314 W. Main St., Walla Walla.
All counties and cities that have opted to plan under the Growth Management Act are required to protect lands defined as "critical areas" within their boundaries.
There are five critical areas. They are geologically hazardous areas, frequently flooded areas, critical aquifer recharge areas, wetlands and fish and wildlife habitat conservation areas.
According to state law, critical areas regulations will apply to agricultural areas, but not agricultural activities. Agricultural activities will not be affected until after December 2011, pending the outcome and recommendations of a study being conducted by the Ruckelshaus Center and subsequent action by the state Legislature.
(Source: Walla Walla Joint Community Development Agency)