By Jessie Stensland
WHIDBEY ISLAND — Island County needs to do a better job of protecting the western toad, a state board has ruled.
The Growth Management Hearings Board again found the county’s comprehensive plan out of compliance with state rules regarding habitat protection of the western toad, which is a candidate for listing as a state species of concern.
It’s the second time that the hearings board sided with the environmental group, Whidbey Environmental Action Network, or WEAN, over the toad issue.
The hearings board ruled in the county’s favor on three other issues that WEAN challenged, finding that the county’s new protections for the “natural area preserve,” rare plants and prairies are adequate.
Island County Commissioner Rick Hannold said the board’s toad decision is just a minor wording issue.
He said the county will easily be able to gain compliance by listing the three specific areas where the state has found upland occurrences of the toad, in addition to a wetland breeding site that is already identified; the areas would have special protections from development and other uses that could harm the toads.
“They are challenging that we don’t designate everywhere the toads could possibly occur,” he said, “which I think is ridiculous.”
Steve Erickson, with WEAN, said it’s more than a minor issue and designating specific areas won’t fix the problem if there’s not clear and substantial protections in place for those areas.
Under Island County’s rules, any proposed development, clearcutting or other earth-disturbing activity within 1,000 feet of a designated area would trigger a biological site assessment, Hannold said. Erickson said it should be more than three times that, noting the importance of maintaining habitat connectivity.
“The Hearings Board ruled that the best available science requires protection of all known occurrences of the species, including its upland habitat,” according to a statement from WEAN.
During the hearing before the board, WEAN objected to attorney Susan Drummond being allowed to represent Island County.
Drummond was hired by the county commissioners to advise and represent the county in matters related to the comprehensive plan, but Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks objected. He argued that commissioners are barred from hiring attorneys to do the job of his office without his consent. He sued and his lawsuit was recently heard before the state Supreme Court.
The hearings board members ruled they don’t have the jurisdiction to rule on the question of who is authorized to represent the county.
WEAN has succeeded in the past four years in pushing the county to create regulations that protect wildlife, according to the group.
“We are now arguing whether it’s enough protection,” Erickson said. “Originally the county argued that they didn’t have to provide any protections.”
The Growth Management Act required the county to update its wildlife protection regulations by 2005, but the county failed to do so.
The group challenged the county and the hearings board ordered the county to complete the update by September 2014. WEAN again challenged the county’s compliance and the hearings board ruled against the county on multiple issues last year.
The county created new regulations and asked to be found in compliance. WEAN objected, the hearings board held a hearing in August and issued its decision this month.
Erickson said he doesn’t know yet if he will appeal the issues WEAN lost.