Walla Walla County commissioners urged to opt into stewardship program

Speakers at a Monday meeting favored a program related to agricultural areas.

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WALLA WALLA -- A program aimed at balancing the needs of farmers with protection of critical areas garnered mostly positive reviews Monday.

At a public hearing, the majority of speakers urged Walla Walla County commissioners to have the county opt into the Voluntary Stewardship Program as an alternative to updating critical areas ordinances related to agricultural activities.

Commissioners Perry Dozier, Greg Tompkins and Gregg Loney made no immediate decision on the matter after closing the hearing. The commissioners have until Jan. 22 to vote on whether they will join the program.

If the county decides not to opt into the program, it will have until July 2013 to update its Critical Areas regulations in regard to agricultural activities, said Tom Glover, director of the Walla Walla Joint Community Development Agency.

But although they said there were still aspects of the program they want to learn more about, commissioners indicated they were leaning toward a "yes" vote.

"Everything looks like this is the way to go, but we need to understand some other things," Tompkins said.

Loney expressed a similar view, saying that while people are understandably skeptical of government proposals, this program appears to have promise.

"My initial thoughts are this looks like a better program and a better option than what we're currently doing," he said. "And at the very least it will minimize our (legal) exposure."

The goal of the program is to allow farming and ranching on lands defined as "critical areas" under the state Growth Management Act. The intent is also to avoid challenges and lawsuits between environmental groups, landowners and state agencies over such rules as buffers between working farmlands and streams.

The program was established this year by the state Legislature and put under the direction of the Washington State Conservation Commission. Two counties, Lewis and Kittitas, have opted into the program and a third, Skagit County, voted to join on Monday, said Ron Shultz, conservation commission director of policy and intergovernmental relations.

About 15 speakers offered comments at Monday's hearing and many said they felt the county should opt into the program, although one speaker warned, "I think it's naive for the county to think it is going to be indemnified from lawsuits."

But others stressed the potential for protection from challenges, as well as local control over how plans to protect critical areas would be drawn, as the reasons for opting into the process.

"One of the benefits of the Voluntary Stewardship Program is to provide an umbrella or shield from litigation," said Jack Field, executive vice-president of the Washington Cattleman's Association.

Andy Porter can be reached at andyporter@wwub.com or 526-8318.

On the net

Information on the Voluntary Stewardship Program is available on the net at:

Washington State Conservation Commission: ubne.ws./vyaaCq

Walla Walla County Joint Community Development Agency: www.wwjcda.org

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