Thursday, October 8, 2009

Who regulates farmland in washington state? - County government

One thing that I've been learning as I work through the farm regulations is that there are several different agencies that may regulate your land.  I'm going to talk specifically about snohomish county, but the federal and state agencies are state-wide. 

This entry is about Snohomish County Planning and Development services.

The first regulator that you'll likely run into is your local county planning department.  They can be nice, or hostile, to farmers.  It varies quite a bit county-to-county.  King County has the reputation of being the worst county planning deparment for farmers, particularly if you're in the 100 year flood plain of any body of water, or on the shoreline of any body of water.  Snohomish county says that they're for farming, but if you're in the 100 year flood plain, my direct experience is that they are not helpful. 

  In snohomish county, they have a person with the job title Agricultural Planner.  That position is currently held by Roxanne Pilkenton.  Here's an excerpt from a mailing that the county made to area residents.

"...the County has designated a trained PDS code enforcement officer to specialize in agricultural complaints and help inform the public about what qualifies as “agriculture” under County code. Ag Planner Roxanne Pilkenton also helps resolve complaints. "

Sounds good so far.  Lets look a little further into this position.  In that same mailing, Roxannes role is further defined: 

"To help growers navigate regulatory processes that are often confusing, PDS created a dedicated agriculture planner position now held by Roxanne Pilkenton. Roxanne assists farmers with all types of permits and brings in experts such as engineers, biologists or critical areas specialists whenever needed to make sure her customers have “full use” of all benefits and exemptions available to their particular farm business activity."

Wow.  That sounds great.  In fact, having someone you can talk to about your permit issues in the planning department might save the typical farmer time and resources.  Maybe smooth things over, help figure out ways to permit normal activities.  Yep, sounds. good. 

But my direct experience is that Roxanne, as friendly and personable as she is, hasn't helped me a bit.  In fact, when an issue came up on my farm, she was the one signing the complaint. 

If you are a new farmer or contemplating some sort of agricultural enterprise in Snohomish county, Roxanne is the LAST PERSON ON EARTH you should talk to.  Yes, she might be able to help you, but lets be clear here.  She's the enforcement officer, and if you have some sort of permit issue you're talking to her about, you're confessing to the enforcement officer. 

This is one of the worst things about the snohomish county PDS.  First, there's no amount of discussion you can have with them that gives you any real certainty that your permit might be issued.  And second, even if they issue a permit, there's no gaurantee that they won't pull it for reasons that aren't clear.  For an example of that, check out this entry in this blog.   Having a permit in hand does not mean you are safe.

What I'd suggest for solutions to this are twofold:  First, that consultations regarding permitting issues with the agriculture planner be considered confidential, and that the agriculture planner be enjoined in some way from reporting those conversations for prosecution or enforcement.  Until that is done there is no good reason for you to talk to Roxanne or whomever holds this position about anything. 

Second suggestion:  Planning and development services must be forced to either issue or deny a permit in a fixed amount of time.  30, 60, 90 days -- whatever the timeframe, it needs to be enforceable.  PDS has been delaying the issuance of submission-complete permits for months or years, which is particularly deadly when it comes to agriculture.  You want a permit so that you can run an irrigation pump and water your crops?  Not this growing season.  Maybe next year sometime.  Meanwhile your crops are dying.

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