‘Right to plow’ nears ballot spot

Measure to excuse farmers of some land-use rules has 30,000 signatures

By Warren Cornwall

Herald Writer

An initiative to exempt Snohomish County farmers from development regulations has garnered more than 30,000 signatures, virtually assuring its place on the county ballot in November.

Snohomish County Farm Bureau President John Postema delivered the final batch of petitions to the Snohomish County auditor Friday and predicted the measure would win at the ballot box.

"I think the issue speaks for itself," Postema said of the measure he has dubbed the "Right to Plow" initiative.

Backers needed nearly 18,000 valid signatures for the measure to qualify for the ballot. Even accounting for duplicates or signatures from people who aren’t registered voters, county elections manager Scott Konopasek said it would almost surely clear that hurdle.

"Unofficially, they have enough signatures," he said.

The result would be the first county initiative, Konopasek said. It could also become a potent issue in upcoming county council elections in two rural districts.

The county council could enact the ordinance before it goes to voters or put a competing measure on the ballot. County council chairman Dave Somers, who opposes the initiative, said an alternative measure is being considered.

"We’ve just started talking about it in the past week once it looked like it was going to have enough signatures," he said.

The council must act by Sept. 21.

The petition effort had more than $21,000 in backing from the county farm bureau, that was used to cover expenses that included paid signature gatherers, according to state campaign-finance records. Postema estimated paid workers collected up to 30 percent of the signatures.

The measure would exempt commercial agricultural businesses from requirements to get certain county land-use permits. The exemption would include plowing, as well as more extensive work such as digging ditches and ponds or building farm roads. A housing developer would need a permit for much of that work.

With the economic pressures facing farmers, Postema said, they deserve to be treated differently than developers.

"I don’t think it’s fair to treat farmers the same as developers if they have to make a ditch," said Postema, owner of Flower World, a nursery that covers 100 acres in south Snohomish County.

The idea has won support from a number of farmers, who hail it as an escape from troublesome red tape.

"I think we’re being regulated to death. All we want is to try to have a right to make a living," said Reid Carleton, who runs a farm and vegetable stand near Lake Stevens.

But some in the agricultural community oppose it. Mark Craven, a member of the Snohomish Conservation District board, said he feared the initiative was so broad that people could clear land under the guise of agriculture, then sell it for subdivisions later on.

"I think if most farmers really understood the whole issue they would probably be not so supportive of it," he said.

County councilman Mike Ashley, a Silvana dairy farmer, has warned the initiative could clash with state law and force a lawsuit that would leave the county vulnerable to a strict court ruling. He has also noted that the county executive in 2000 ruled that plowing and harvesting did not require a permit.

Ashley said he and county and state officials are drafting regulations that would protect farmers and ensure compliance with the Endangered Species Act.

But Postema said he and others have lost patience with the slow pace of reform and politicians’ promises. Even if a court finds the measure illegal, the council can revise it to make sure it will pass muster, he said.

"We’re trying to force their hands," he said.

The measure has become embroiled in election-year politics as well.

Ashley’s and Somers’ seats are up for election this fall. If Ashley wins the Democratic primary, he will face former Republican state lawmaker John Koster, an initiative supporter. Both Republicans seeking to run against Somers, Chad Minnick and Jeff Sax, have also endorsed the measure.

You can call Herald Writer Warren Cornwall at 425-339-3463 or send e-mail to cornwall@heraldnet.com.

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