County’s farmers are force for protecting environment

Snohomish County finally came to a reasonable conclusion about whether farmers need a permit to plow next to rivers and streams. Thankfully, they don’t.

It took months to resolve questions over whether development rules that regulate the grading of land might also apply to farmers plowing their fields. Late last month, the county planning office said that it had resolved the issue with a clarification from the International Conference of Building Officials, which interprets building codes.

The interpretation came after substantial pushing by the Snohomish County Agricultural Advisory Board. The board’s considerable, low-profile efforts helped bring much-needed common sense to the final decision that grading regulations don’t apply to regular plowing activity.

The length of the discussions is very much a measure of the pressures created by the listing of chinook salmon under the federal Endangered Species Act. Reasonably, county officials worried about the impacts any statement might have in environmental wrangling over fish protection. But acting as if plowing might actually be grading flew in the face of reality. Such a pretense inevitably would become a roadblock to establishing good policies and practices for the longer term.

As the county and its residents recognize, farmers here have been good stewards of the land. The preservation of agriculture will be vital to protecting both water quality and the overall health of the environment in Snohomish County and around the state.

After the immediate question was resolved, Mike Ashley, the advisory board’s chairman, described the county’s ruling as "a great relief, because we have tied up so much time in this particular issue." As board members know, however, the county still needs to address several related matters. A key question for the future is how the county will create controls to assure that farming near critical environmental areas operates under some definable standards, just as other activities do. The lesson of the grading discussion is that the main factors to keep in mind are clear, common-sense guidelines and fairness. For instance, farmers should be allowed to continue plowing on fields near streams in critical areas, just as already-constructed homes are allowed to stay in those areas.

Common sense and fairness are all that farmers need and all they ask.

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