State’s habitat project near Stanwood raises farmers’ ire

STANWOOD — Farmers and conservationists are split over a plan to flood farmland that Norwegian homesteaders claimed from the Stillaguamish River delta more than a century ago.

For now, the effort to breach levees near Stanwood is on hold while the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife seeks permits from Snohomish County.

“We are out of construction season at this point and we’ll hope to start up next summer if everything lines up correctly,” said Lora Leschner, a regional manager with Fish and Wildlife.

The project involves about 150 acres, with roughly half of it to be restored as tide-influenced estuary with habitat for salmon and waterfowl, said Tom Rowe, a division manager with the Snohomish County planning department. To do that, the state would remove an existing dike, which it says is failing, and build a new, smaller one.

“There’s no infrastructure that could be impacted, but we’re asking them to balance” agriculture and natural habitat, Rowe said.

The state originally applied for the habitat project using a streamlined process that bypassed local permits. The Snohomish County Farm Bureau appealed that approach to the state Hydraulic Appeals Board in August. The board ruled in its favor last month, forcing the state to get county permits.

“We don’t disagree with the purpose, but they cannot be allowed to do that at the expense of designated farmland,” said Ed Moats, a public affairs consultant with the county farm bureau.

The Snohomish County Farm Bureau would like the state to ask for a change in the land’s agricultural designation during the county’s yearly land-use docket.

The habitat conversion has ignited similar passions to a larger project on Smith Island between Everett and Marysville. While the Smith Island project could force a horse stable to close or relocate, there are no people or businesses that would have to move from Leque Island.

A plaque on the property says that in 1876, farmers, including Norwegian immigrant N.P. Leque and his wife, Anna, diked several hundred acres in the Stillaguamish River delta by “hand and horse.” The Leques started a homestead there and their descendants continued to farm it until the mid-20th century. In 1994, a family member sold it to the state.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

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