Commissioners should not act at wetland hearing Thursday
While we were hammering out a deal with farmers to let them out of some of EPC’s local wetland regulations, under certain conditions, the farmers went behind our backs and over EPC’s heads to ask the state to COMPLETELY exempt them from ALL our local regulations. It was a surprise move that stunned EPC staff and commissioner Higginbotham who have been working closely with the farmers to relax EPC regulations for them; and it galled citizens like me who have been spending our time working on the local rule changes in workshops, and spending our tax dollars paying EPC’s attorneys to write and rewrite the rule changes in a futile attempt to please the Agricultural lobby. All of that time & money will be wasted if the Ag lobby’s sly sabotage works, and their proposed state law passes. (Shame on Rep. Rich Glorioso for sponsoring this bill!)
As a member of the county’s Citizens Environmental Advisory Committee (CEAC), I suggested that we recommend commissioners take no action on the local agricultural exemptions until the state-level action is resolved. CEAC concurred, and will make that recommendation at the public hearing this Thursday.
We should not negotiate county rules with the Agricultural lobby while they are trying to pass a state law that would negate any local rules we write for them. Any local rule changes passed under these conditions would leave us feeling our local leaders had been bullied into giving away too much with the threat of state action hanging over the deal.
We should not waste any more time & money trying to change our local rules to suit the Agricultural lobby, now that the Ag lobby has revealed the local rule change is merely their Plan B, in case their Plan A—NO local regulations—does not pass. Let’s see how their Plan A works out for them first. If their bill passes, there is no need for us to change our rules for them, as our rules will no longer apply to them. If their bill fails, then hopefully they’ll be willing to lay all their cards on the table, and negotiate with us in good faith.
The good thing is that if they do decide to deal openly with us, without the threat of state action, we no longer need to rush to change our 22-year-old rules for them. Their state legislation wouldn’t be passed until next spring, so there is no reason for us to change our rules immediately. And we certainly need more time—the draft rule change is simply not ready.
Contrary to the original promise that only quarter-acre wetlands would be abandoned to the Ag industry, this amendment would allow half-acre wetlands to be impacted without justification. (Keep in mind that anyone can damage wetlands under EPC rules if necessary for the reasonable use of their property; and man-made wetlands, like ditches and cow ponds are already exempt.)
There is controversy over the number of years the land must remain Agricultural in order to remain free of the obligation to mitigate (or compensate for) any wetland destruction accomplished under the Ag exemption. If we are going to change our rules to allow farmers to fill wetlands that developers can’t, then we should at least require mitigation once the land use changes from agriculture to development. This doesn’t prevent a farmer from developing the land, it just requires mitigation at that point, and provides an incentive to keep the land in agriculture after we’ve allowed the wetlands to be destroyed. Farmers want to be let out of the requirement to mitigate if they farm a certain number of years before developing. They say 3–5 years is plenty, but anything less than 10–20 years is just giving an “agricultural exemption” to land that will soon be paved.
We need more time to work out these sorts of issues in the proposed rule change. There are substantial problems: see this former EPC scientist’s analysis for more detail.
Furthermore, there is no reason to bypass the new Technical Advisory Group in order to rush this Ag exemption into the law. The whole purpose of this committee of wetland scientists is to review ALL the Hybrid rule changes, but they have not been given time to meet and discuss this important rule change.
This is the first board of county commissioners to change our wetland rules in 22 years. They have promised, on the record, that the Hybrid would streamline the process without weakening our wetland protections. Commissioner Higginbotham’s published letter promised that the Hybrid will “maintain the strong protections our wetlands enjoy today,” adding “the hybrid is no compromise.” EPC’s Hybrid proposal is titled “EPC Wetlands Protection: Improving the Process, Maintaining the Protection.”
Contrary to those promises, the proposed Agricultural exemptions would weaken our protections.
Commissioners are set to vote on the Ag exemptions at a Public Hearing this Thursday, Nov. 15, 9:00 a.m. in County Center. I’m asking them to refrain from any action on the proposal at this time. You can e-mail your thoughts to your commissioners & EPC staff, and speak at the Public Hearing, or simply attend to support those speakers you agree with.