Destroying wetlands on (so-called) “farm land”
Citizens raised many good questions about the proposed Agricultural Exemption to our wetland protections, and we asked our Environmental Protection Commissioners (aka our county commissioners) to refrain from any action at their last hearing, on Nov. 15. So they postponed their decision until this Thursday, to allow time for EPC to address the citizens’ concerns. Disappointingly, EPC has not improved their proposal to alleviate those concerns. If you read EPC’s defense of their position, note that much of their material is actually written by the Agricultural Economic Development Council — which perfectly illustrates the problem with this Ag Exemption.
This Ag Exemption is based — not on science or economic need — but on politics. The Ag Lobby is pushing for less regulation using their political muscle, with no real economic justification or analysis of the environmental consequences. Last August we changed the rules to exempt man-made ditches and cow ponds — the farmers’ biggest bone of contention. Do farmers really need to destroy small natural wetlands, too? Can our wildlife sustain the habitat loss? What will this cost taxpayers in terms of flood control and water quality? Our commissioners don’t know. We’ll see if they care on Thursday.
And we’ll see if they mind that this “Agricultural Exemption” has loopholes big enough to drive a bulldozer through, so it can be used by developers, too.
Check out this map I made. I took the county’s map of “Ag Lands” eligible for the Ag Exemption, and I pointed out a couple of places in my neighborhood where the so-called “Ag Lands” are not being farmed at all. In fact they’ve been recently zoned for dense development. You can see plenty of this “Ag Land” all over the urban area, already zoned for condos and townhouses, where the housing is not yet built. While the developers wait for the market to recover, they can lease the land to a sod farmer, or borrow a few cows to put on the land temporarily, and thereby qualify under this Ag Exemption to fill in some wetlands before they build their subdivisions.
Just like these tactics are used by large landowners to get an “Agricultural Exemption” from their property taxes (under Greenbelt laws), and like non-farmers sign forms swearing to use fireworks only for bona fide farming operations, this “Agricultural Exemption” from our wetlands protections could easily be used by developers.
A developer could also pressure a farmer into using his exemption to fill wetlands as a condition of sale, before the developer buys the property.
Citizens have been trying to put conditions into this Ag Exemption to prevent its use by non-farmers, with no success. For example, we’ve asked that the developer who buys farmland with filled wetlands should be required to put the wetlands back, through mitigation, before building. The EPC staff tried to compromise, saying any filled wetlands turned into a non-farming use within 7 years should be mitigated, but the Ag Industry found this modest proviso unacceptable. The Agriculture Economic Development Council voted last week to approve the exemption only if this time limit is lowered to 5 years — which just shows they want to be able to use this “Agricultural Exemption” on land that will soon be paved.
This Thursday, Jan. 17, Commissioners will decide whether to approve this exemption, at a public hearing at 9:00 a.m. in county center. I’ll be there, with other concerned citizens, to ask them to make sure this rule change has net benefits, before adopting it. You can come too, and be a voice for our wetlands.
The newspapers have all but abandoned the fight now that we’ve saved the wetlands division from elimination. But commissioners continue working to weaken our wetlands protections. They think no one will notice now that the limelight is off.
Whether you agree with this rule change or not, I hope you’ll let them know we are paying attention to what they’re doing, and we’ll hold them accountable come election time. My letter to the commissioners details my concerns, and offers some suggestions for improving the rule change. You can write them with your concerns, too.