Friday, October 13, 2006

On Thursday, we went to Seattle

Thursday, October 12, 2006, farmers from all over Washington converged on Seattle for a tractorcade through the city that showed our urban neighbors that farmers do, indeed, want Initiative 933 to be passed by the voters.  While there may be a few farmers across the state who aren't so sure about I-933, our presence in Seattle on a beautiful day in harvest season illustrates just how important the Property Fairness Initiative is to us.

One of the tractors from Skagit County

The first farm equipment arrived at the staging area Wednesday evening, with most showing up Thursday morning, arriving at a lot full of tractors, trailers, and trucks ranging from small pickups to tractor-trailers.  Several tons of fresh produce was hauled in, too, and would be donated to a Seattle-area food bank when the event came to a close.

Up the hill and into townWith reporters interviewing anyone who looked like a farmer, television cameramen taping everything in sight, and news helicopters circling overhead, the serious work of decorating the tractors and converting trucks and trailers into floats occupied the time between arrival and hitting the streets.

 The Seattle Police Department provided security, traffic control, and escort assistance, and we very muck appreciate their efficiency and smooth professionalism.  It's not easy to insert a twelve-block-long procession of slow-moving farm equipment into city traffic in the middle of the day, and they did it with apparent ease. 

As we got under way, people came out and welcomed us to town . . . well, some did . . . others seemed to just take it as part of another day in Seattle.  It's amazing the number of people who are carrying a digital camera around with them as an everyday accessory, though.

The closer we got to downtown, the more cameras we saw, along with smiles, waves, and shouts of encouragement.  While some folks seemed to be wondering why there were tractors crawling along the city streets, most were very welcoming.

Supporters, opponents, and those who just kept going

When we arrived in the midst of the high-rises, though, the number of people who seemed to need to go about their business determined not to notice  that anything was different today than yesterday . . . air horns and tractor noise notwithstanding . . .  picked up.  That made for an interesting mix with those cheering us on. 

Approaching Westlake, where a rally in support of the initiative was held, we encountered some folks opposed to I-933 who were holding signs representing their point of view, with others supporting the Property Fairness Initiative mixing in.  While some of the opposition folks were fairly chilly, others smiled, and a few even waved.  We encountered only a couple of in-your-face opponents the entire time we were in town, and we really appreciate that touch of civility.  We're sure the police do, too! 

We dropped the rally leaders at Westlake, and motored onward, making the turn back toward the south end of town, continuing to receive more encouragement from many of the pedestrians along the way. 

Arriving back at the rally point, most stayed long enough to help load all the produce to take to the food bank.  Several of us accompanied the trucks to the delivery point to help unload.

Unloading produce at teh food bank

Pumpkins . . . lots and lots of pumpkins . . . and several other types of produce . . . but so many pumpkins! 

It turns out that the people associated with this particular food bank had been praying for . . . pumpkins.  They had been worrying that there wouldn't be enough to go around for the kids for Halloween, and here we were, with enough for their needs and more to share with other food banks.  It's incredibly humbling to be the answer to someone's heartfelt prayer.  Tends to underscore the faith you carry in life.  Kind of makes you water up some, too.

It was a perfect note in a pretty near perfect day.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

County critical areas planning continues

The following article appeared in the October 4, 2006 edition of the Port Townsend and Jefferson County Leader.

County critical areas planning continues
Volunteer advisory group seeks extension

By Kasia Pierzga
Leader Staff Writer

Just about a month after they began hashing out ideas for revising a county ordinance designed to protect critical areas such as wetlands, the members of a volunteer advisory committee are asking for six more months to complete their work.

The committee was initially expected to come up with a list of recommendations by the end of September, with the Jefferson County commissioners considering a final draft of the ordinance in January.

The commissioners received the time extension request on Sept. 25.

In an e-mail to the county commissioners Sept. 6, county planning commission member and Critical Areas Ordinance Committee Chairman Jim Hagen wrote, "We have reached agreement that the importance of the  proposed ordinance is such that to rush the process would not do the end result justice."

Despite the request for more time, Hagen said he's happy with the committee's progress so far.

"I think it's going very well," he said, adding that the committee had already reached agreement on several topics that should help it begin the process of developing recommendations.

"Everybody would like to see this get done without rushing it," Hagen said.

But not everyone on the committee thinks things are going well.

Committee member Jill Silver, a habitat biologist, said getting the 17-member group to agree to a list of recommendations would probably be a bigger challenge than most committee participants realize.

The different perspectives are valuable in developing a list of recommendations, but without a shared understanding of the basics of the guiding science and planning and growth-management issues, it's hard to have a conversation in which everyone is in agreement on what is at stake.

"We aren't even a tenth of the way through," she said.  "We've only dealt with agriculture so far, and we're not yet in agreement on that."

Among the members of the committee, Silver said, "there's a huge range of understanding of basics about landscape processes and the ecologic and economic value of protecting our shared water resources. Then there are varying degrees of understanding of the critical areas ordinance itself."

During a committee meeting two weeks ago, Silver proposed that members of the committee take coordinated field trips to see for themselves what different kinds of wetlands and their buffers look like.  That way, she said, they can better understand what a buffer might look like, and how it might be applied.

"Many people, including me, don't know what it's going to look like to put it [the ordinance] on the ground," she said.

Silver also said she would like to see the county develop a map of wetlands and water resources in rapidly developing East Jefferson County, not only as a way to protect them but as a way to provide property owners — and prospective buyers — with some degree of certainty as to how the land can be used, and to develop buffers that protect water storage, flood control and filtration of pollutants.

Despite the committee's slow progress, Silver said the dialogue among people representing such a broad range of perspectives — including farming, building, real estate and the environment — is important to develpo9ing critical areas protections that everyone can live with.

"Maybe we're setting up a process to get at the rest of the ordinance more easily," Silver said.  "I'm seeing a benefit from sharing ideas with everyone at the table."

Common ground

Josh Peters, the lead planner at Jefferson County Department of Community Development, said members of the county's planning staff have been asked to attend the committee meetings and provide information and resources as needed.

"We;re going to help them frame the problems they're trying to solve and lay out the issues for consideration so they can develop a list of recommendations to present to the planning commission," he said.

Peters said the county could choose to develop its own wetland guidelines, but doing so carries considerable risk.  The process would not only be time-consuming and expensive, but it would also leave the county vulnerable to a legal challenge.

If the county chooses not to adopt the Department of Ecology's guidelines, "are we going to come up with our own scheme?" Peters wondered.  "if so, how would we come up with it, and how are we going to prepare to defend our decision?"

Addressing agriculture

So far, much of the discussion has focused on the proposed ordinance's exemption for agricultural land.  The exemption allows development of site-specific buffers on some agricultural land, but critics worry that the exemption won't cover land that has ben out of production for a while or that has only recently been converted to farming.

Some committee members advocate the use of farm plans instead of relying on the agricultural exemption — a strategy that was recently approved for use in Island County by the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board.

Developed with the help of resource conservation professionals, the plans outline a farm's natural resources as well as how to protect them and how to maximize the farm's economic profits.

Developing a farm plan costs about $2,500, according to Al Latham, manager of the Jefferson County Conservation District.  The cost is usually covered through state conservation grants and county funding.

Latham said he has his doubts about the value of making farm plans mandatory.  The conservation district has had a lot of success with getting farmers to take care of steams and other critical areas on a voluntary basis, he said.

"Once you tell them they have to do a farm plan, it changes their feelings about the process," he said.

Besides that, Latham said, farm plans are not designed to be used for regulatory purposes.

"Who is going to go out and monitor each farm?  We don't want to do that," he said.  "it would change our whole relationship with farmers if we were a regulatory agency."

Making farm plans mandatory also would mean that the agency would have to hire more conservation planners, Latham said.

"If there was a deadline given by which everyone had to have a farm plan, I'd say we'd need three more people, at least, for at least the first year,"  Latham said.

Planning for the future

Silver said she hopes the long-term solution will take into consideration not only the needs of current residents of Jefferson County but also of those yet to come.

"I'm looking ahead 20, 30, 50 years from now," she said.  "I want to know we have the natural system in place to support whatever developing is going to take place in this county."

The availability of water also is key to maintaining the economic value of land, Silver said.  Educating people about the value of wetlands not only as wildlife habitat but also as the source for replenishment of water supplies is key to gaining acceptance for land-use regulations designed to protect them.

"I want people to understand why we need to protect water," she said.  "If we just ram it down their throats, they're just going to fight against it."

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

I-933: Property rights at center of debate

The following article appeared in the October 4, 2006 edition of the Port Townsend and Jefferson County Leader.

I-933: Property rights at center of debate

By Fred Obee
Leader Staff Writer

It's easy to see why Roger Short distrusts government regulators.

A mile and a half of slow-moving Chimacum Creek passes through his property, and over the decades, the government has led efforts to straighten the creek, cut down trees, plant canary grass and eradicate beavers. Today, environmental planners would recommend just the opposite.

At one time, with the backing of government agencies, the object was to put as much land in production as possible by draining wetlands. Today, setbacks to preserve wetlands and protect salmon have grown so restrictive that Short claims his Chimacum Valley farm isn't worth what he paid for it 20 years ago.

"Overregulation squeezes out the little guy and opens the door for the big guy," Short told an election forum crowd at the Masonic Hall in Port Townsend on Sept. 27. "The government needs to think before it acts."

Short said he thinks the answer is Initiative 933, which is on the ballot this November.

I-933 provisions

If approved by voters, I-933 would work like this: If government regulations reduce property values, state and local governments would be required to pay owners for their loss or waive the rules and allow a proposed development to go forward. Compensation would be paid when any portion of a property is required to remain in its natural state, when logging is restricted or when new regulations prohibit uses that were legal on Jan. 1, 1996, the initiative says.

Opponents, however, say if approved I-933 will cause a tangle of confusion, will require even more government bureaucracy to process claims, will add uncertainty and delay to land-use decisions and will open rural lands to widespread development.

Elizabeth Davis, a Whidbey Island attorney and chair of a League of Women Voters committee that has studied the issue, told the Masonic Hall crowd the wording of the initiative extends beyond real estate to include all real property, including water rights, and even such things as boats, cars, trailers and stocks. While the initiative is being pushed by the Washington Farm Bureau, it applies to any properties, not just farmland.

She said a law adopted in Oregon which also seeks compensation for aggrieved property owners has resulted in more than 2,500 claims totaling more than $5.6 billion. So far, no compensation has been paid.

"That's a pretty good indication of what will happen in Washington," she said.

The Oregon law, called Measure 37, is more far reaching than I-933, everyone agrees, but its premise is the same. Under that law, one property owner proposed to build a pumice mine and hydrothermal power plant inside the Newberry National Volcanic Monument in central Oregon. When told he couldn't go forward with the project, he claimed the state must pay him #203 million in compensation or waive the rules and let him build. If I-933 passes, property owners could file similar claims here, so long as the use proposed was legal on Jan. 1, 1996.

Not a new issue

This isn't the first time advocates have asked for a statewide vote to protect private property rights.

In 1995, Referendum 48 was placed on the ballot. Although worded differently, like I-933 it would also have required government to pay landowners when regulations imposed for "public benefit" reduced property values. The referendum was defeated at the polls.

The issue fueling the discontent then was the imposition of the Growth Management Act, which restricts uses in rural areas and requires that growth be funneled to cities and towns. Today, growing resentment over the government use of eminent domain nationally and locally for increased setbacks from streams and wetlands is pushing the property rights issue to the forefront once again.

Mark Dembro, board president of the Jefferson Land Trust , said he knows that history is replete with examples of bad government, and he said he knows current growth management laws can be improved. He supports working though those specific problems at the local level, but he's opposed to I-933.

"It's the speculator's bill of rights," he says of I-933. "The facts are the facts. It's bad news."

Dembro said all governance is a balance of individual rights and the rights of community as a whole. Zoning might restrict one person, but it also protects neighbors from inappropriate uses popping up next door. Environmental laws might restrict an individual property owner, but it is in the community's interest to protect the environment, he argues.

Cost of implementation

The initiative has caused a storm of controversy across the sate as government agencies and interest groups weigh in.

An analysis by the state Office of Financial Management, for example, estimated that I-933 would cost state agencies between $2 billion and #2.18 billion in the next six years.

Cities and towns would have to bay between $3.8 billion and $5.3 billion, while counties would pay $1.49 billion to $1.51 billion, the study says.

Supporters of the initiative dispute those numbers. They say they are based on the worst case possible and that if governments are careful and enact legislation that doesn't harm property owners, the cost won't be anywhere near that high.

John Stuhlmiller of the Washington Farm Bureau, and one of the drafters of the initiative, told the Port Townsend crowd that governments managed to find the money to pay for growth management, and that cost was easily in the millions.

"The GMA is stopping reasonable us," Stuhlmiller said. "This is our greatest shot at fairness."

At the Masonic Hall League of Women Voters forum, one questioner asked Short whether his support for I-933 means he's unsatisfied with current county efforts to find a compromise on development setbacks from wetlands and streams.

"The process we're involved in right now is very good," Short acknowledged, but he said he's still wary.

"There's just been so much that's bad in the past," he said.

I-933 turns contentious between foes at forum

The following article appeared in the October 3, 2006 Jefferson County edition of the Peninsula Daily News.

I-933 turns contentious between foes at forum

By Jeff Chew
Peninsula Daily News

PORT TOWNSEND — One sees I-933 as damaging to the community, grossly anti-government and marketed deceitfully to the voters.

The other sees it as a way to rein in out-of-control government that is threatening his livelihood as a farmer.

Mark Dembro, Jefferson Land Trust president, and longtime Chimacum farmer Roger Short faced off Monday before about 7- people attending the Port Townsend Chamber of Commerce luncheon at Fort Worden State Park Commons.

"I-933 is all about a process to be followed by government and how to do it," said Short, adding he has experienced some "horror stories" dealing with government as a small farmer.

He urged residents to carefully read I-933, which goes to the voters of Jefferson County through Nov. 7.

Outright, the proposal states: "This act is intended to protect the use and value of private property while providing for a healthy environment and ensuring that government agencies do not damage the sue of value of private property, except if necessary to prevent threats to human health and safety."

Dembro, who as a land rust leader helps protect more than 1,200 acres county-wide, takes a dim view of I-933.

It would, he said, set up a pay or waive system, letting property owners collect a cash payment from government by claiming that a law prevents them from the most profitable use of their property.

If the government won't pay or does not have the money, government must waive the law.

"In other words," said Dembro, "if we, the taxpayers, do not pay an individual property owner for following the law, the property owner would be free to ignore the law."

Pay or waive

What could happen, Dembro said, is developers could profit while the rest of the community pays.

Dembro said many farmers oppose I-933, including those with the Western Washington Agricultural Association, United Farm Workers, Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland and others.

Short, however, is not one of them.

He said continued over-regulation of small farmers will cause them to fade away in time, with conglomerate national and international corporations set to take over. 

For example, Short said, "more food is being grown in South America."

For this reason and others, he said, "government needs to think before it acts."

More land to preserve?

With 85 percent of Jefferson County in public hands, whey does the state Department of Fish and Wildlife need more land to preserve, Short wondered.

While opponents say the proposal would cost taxpayers up to $4 billion, Short said, it is accurate to say that it would cost $8 million to enact, according to the state Office of Budget and Management.

Dembro argued that he did not believe that I-933 supporters see what damage the act would cause.

"I believe they have made the mistake of putting their trust in people who sell the lie that government is the problem," said Dembro.

"The government is us."

Dembro called I-933 more than just an attack on farmers.

"I-933 is a broad attack on our power as citizens to authorize our government to use legitimate and necessary functions of government for our public benefit," he said.

Jefferson County Editor Jeff Chew can be reached at 360-385-2335 or