Significant concerns with the Sustainable Lands Strategy
By John Koster, Snohomish County Councilman
My purpose in writing this short article is to bring attention to some critically important land use changes under consideration for Snohomish County. These plans, should they succeed, will permanently alter the character of the County. At stake are thousands of acres of designated farmland coveted by environmental interests seeking ways to "enhance" salmon and wildlife habitat.
While the authors and proponents of the Sustainable Lands Strategy
(SLS) have presented these major policy changes as a "win-win" situation, others are not so sure -- and remain deeply concerned with a strategy that seeks to create "fish habitat" by destroying thousands of acres of farmland, much of it by means of salt and/or fresh water inundation.
Normally, such a change would require a de-designation process that involves a justification for such de-designation, public hearings, and thoughtful decisions made by the County's elected officials. Instead, the SLS is a short-cut that avoids such procedures and, more importantly, takes the decision-making process away from the County Council to vest the authority within a newly created bureaucracy.
The farmlands targeted for conversion to habitat would become designated as "critical areas," and such designation is not without impact. Significant setbacks and other restrictions are likely to result. What is being sold as a worthy conservation program could morph into a much larger land control mechanism, involving restrictions on land use with accompanying penalties for property owners guilty of insufficiently "sustainable" activities.
The Snohomish County Farm Bureau has declined to support SLS from the beginning. In a strongly worded letter written earlier this year, FB President Ed Hussman denounced the plan as biased against farming ..."primarily because it appeared to be a highly biased process aimed at flooding Ag-land for fish habitat; without consideration of restoring other lands, equal in quantity and quality, to the flooded lands taken."
Bear in mind that designated agricultural lands are, by law, mandated for preservation as farmland under the Growth Management Act. It's no secret that the SLS initiative includes "breaching earthen dikes and flooding large tracts of designated farmland" to create fish and wildlife habitat.
SLS will burden County taxpayers. The effects of tidal inundation by seawater on fresh water aquifers in Snohomish County are as of yet unknown and nobody has calculated the cost or even ventured an estimated guess for implementing SLS, yet the proposal indicates that significant funding will be required: " ...achieving the current 1700 acre target for habitat restoration projects is not alone sufficient to return native salmon populations to harvestable and sustainable levels....it is important to make strategic business and infrastructure investments to fully support both farms and fish."
We are living in difficult economic times marked by high unemployment and budget cuts. Just last week Standard & Poors moved our nation's credit rating to negative. The cost of food and gasoline are moving upward at an alarming rate. With many in the Ag-industry lured by government subsidies from producing crops for food to producing crops for ethanol and other bio-fuels, why would we want to permanently destroy large parcels of our farmland resource at a time of rising food prices and economic uncertainty?
While the framework and guiding principles of the SLS appear attractive to many at first glance, the document's holistic "outcome based" language creates a sophisticated end-around current policy, overtly dismissing the engagement of the appropriate farmland de-designation process.
While I have significant concerns with SLS as written, there remains a time and place for future projects where fish and farming interests will find common ground. The key to success will be a fair and balanced process.