Statement on Growth Management Act Appeal

LYNDEN, Wash.–Whatcom County farming groups are pushing back after the Whatcom County Council ignored state law and the County Comprehensive Plan’s goals and policies that require local family farms, food, and resource lands to be protected on the same level as the environment.

The Whatcom County Farm Bureau, Washington Farm Bureau, Whatcom County Cattlemen’s Association and Whatcom Family Farmers are appealing an updated set of farm regulations to the Washington State Growth Management Hearings Board (GMHB), after the council approved a Critical Areas Ordinance (CAO) that violates the Washington Growth Management Act (GMA) by failing to protect local food and farms.

“This ill-conceived update to important Whatcom County environmental protections must be corrected to comply with the GMA and protect the interests of local food and farming and provide environmental safeguards before being placed into effect,” said Leslie Honcoop, local farmer and president of the Whatcom County Farm Bureau.

The GMA requires counties to encourage the protection and enhancement of agricultural resource lands, the economic development of farmland, the protection of farmland owners’ property rights, and the protection of those owners from illegal public disclosure requirements.

Whatcom County’s updated CAO fails all of these tests, as well as others outlined in the GMA and Comprehensive Plan.

“By neglecting to take these important considerations into account, the Whatcom County Council has enacted rules that place our local agricultural community at risk of further negative economic pressures and costs of complying with unnecessary mandates that do little to protect the environment on and around farmland that local farmers work so hard to steward,” Honcoop said.

Those who crafted the GMA knew that taking away farms’ ability to be economically viable would only serve to encourage the conversion of agricultural resource lands (sprawl) and ultimately speed the urbanization of our already dwindling farmlands and rural areas.

The farming and ranching groups involved in the appeal are calling for the updated Whatcom County CAO to be brought back to the drawing board to address these major problems.

It is imperative that the GMHB invalidate the updated CAO, so that Whatcom County environmental regulations can be corrected to comply with the GMA and the Comprehensive Plan and protect the interests of local food and farming on par with the environment.

Whatcom Agriculture’s Efforts to Give Input on Key Regulatory Documents

Whatcom County Farm Bureau has been monitoring the Comprehensive Plan & Critical Areas Ordinance (CAO) review process for nearly two years. During that time, we have made many comments on the consequences of proposed language regarding agriculture. Most significantly:

We opposed public disclosure of which farms have farm plans and their locations.

We expressed our concern about the consequences of mandated farm plans for 4H, FFA and other youth club participants, and tried to get a simple exemption for these groups. But because the Council wanted to require an educational piece to receive an exemption, the process became too complex to be workable.

We opposed the farm plan exemption of 1 animal unit per 3 acres as too restrictive to be a viable exemption as so few would qualify. Planning would not entertain an adjustment, though we offered proposals and valid arguments for multiple options. As it ended up, no exemptions for farm plans were written into the CAO.

We brought forward a definition of ongoing agriculture that more accurately described agricultural activities, and eliminated the restriction of land lying fallow for only 5 years before it was not allowed to return to its previous ag classification. This definition was accepted by the council and passed into the CAO update in July, only to be pulled in November as it seemed, to the Planning and the Council, too great a risk for engendering a challenge and a lawsuit.

What we have learned is that though the Growth Management Act mandates equal protection for the environment and resource lands, it does not happen in our county. Despite demonstrable evidence of improving water quality, ( and increased use of best management practices, agricultural use is viewed as degradation of land.

We have also learned the power of the lawsuit is greater than the power of reason and good arguments. We did our research and formed cogent arguments for our positions, but fear of repercussions from making any changes to the CAO and thus triggering lawsuits and challenges from the environmental community carried far more weight with the Planning Dept and the Council. They knew who would sue, and they knew it wasn’t the farmers. Decisions were not made on principle as much as they were made to appease the environmental community. It is very sad that our society has come to this; that people who threaten to inflict the most pain are the ones that are accommodated. And the irony is that, often, these are the same people who say they will not tolerate bullies.

We need truth and people courageous enough to declare it despite the consequences. We are going to have to be those people, costly though it may be. Whatcom County Farm Bureau is committed to speaking the truth about agriculture as often as we have opportunity.

We are grateful to our attorney, Dannon Traxler of Langabeer Traxler, for her accurate advocacy of our issues, and her dedicated effort. It is a pleasure working with her. As well, we have been supported financially by Whatcom County Cattlemen, Whatcom Family Farmers, Ag Water Board, Dairy Federation and Washington State Farm Bureau. They have also been great resources for advice and strategy. We look forward to working with them again.

Requiring Farm Plans – Pending County Law – Information Meeting

Thursday, October 19 at 7 PM – 9 PM

Mt. Baker Rotary Bldg.  Northwest Washington Fair

1775 Front St. Lynden, WA 98264

We, along with 5 other agricultural organizations, have been working on giving County Council feedback on their changes to the Critical Areas ordinance since last fall.

A major issue has come up in the last couple of weeks in the County Council’s review of the Critical Areas Ordinance. Per Whatcom County Planning and Development staff’s suggestion, the County Council has adopted wording that would require anyone who has more than one animal unit (1000lb) per three acres of grazable land to obtain a farm plan.

We need you to speak up and tell County Council how this will effect you. This meeting is an opportunity to come and learn more about where things are at, what you can do now, and much more. We will have our lawyer who has been helping us in submitting the comments and keeping on top of what County Council has been doing there as well.

Come to learn and take action.

Call to Action for Livestock Owners

A major issue has come up in the last couple of weeks in the County Council’s review of the Critical Areas Ordinance.

Per Whatcom County Planning and Development staff’s suggestion, the County Council has adopted wording that would require anyone who has more than one animal unit (1000lb) per three acres of grazable land to obtain a farm plan.

A steer, for example, often weighs over one thousand pounds, so two steers would not be allowed on three acres without a Farm Plan.

County staff and the Council seem to believe that most small or hobby farms will fit into this exemption category, but we believe that this ratio is unlikely to exempt very many animal farmers. We also believe that the 1 Animal Unit to 3 grazable acres ratio is overly restrictive. There is no way that one cow or horse will generate enough nutrients to overload even one acre of grazable pasture.

Farm Plans will be an extra cost for small animal farms and will discourage people from keeping livestock. They are also unnecessary where there are no problems with nutrient management and runoff into waterways.

We need to let the Council know this policy is overly restrictive and will affect many.

What can you do?

• Share this information with your neighbors and friends.
• Email the County Council at
• Come to the County Council meeting at the Council Chambers on Oct. 24. Tell them how this will affect you and ask them to remove this requirement.

Words Matter

Currently, we are learning how much words matter as the County Council reviews the Critical Areas Ordinance. Every 10 years, this document must be reviewed and changes can be made at that time.

Right now, your County Council is deciding what is considered an agricultural activity and what is not. They are deciding how to determine when a piece of land goes out of agricultural use because there is no longer appropriate agricultural activity happening there. They are proposing a time limit of only 5 years for land to be without defined agricultural activity before they reclassify the use of that property to no longer be available for agriculture.

Sometimes, there are reasons beyond the farmer’s control that land lies fallow. It could be a market collapse that makes his crop unprofitable. It could be that grandpa retires, but still lives on the farm for some time before the next generation resumes farming.

It could be that the definition of agricultural activity is so narrow that certain typical agricultural practices are excluded from the code.

That’s why words matter – and why we are paying close attention to the definitions that are proposed by the County Council.

We need the farming community, and our community supporters to defend the best definition of Agricultural Activities and Ongoing Agriculture. The County Council must know that farmers and farmland are important to our economy and our community identity.

Whatcom County Farm Bureau supports the adoption of this definition for the Critical Areas Ordinance:

“AGRICULTURAL ACTIVITIES” means agricultural uses and practices including, but not limited to: Producing, breeding, or increasing agricultural products; rotating and changing agricultural crops; allowing land used for agricultural activities to lie fallow in which it is plowed and tilled but left unseeded; allowing land used for agricultural activities to lie dormant as a result of adverse agricultural market conditions; allowing land used for agricultural activities to lie dormant because the land is enrolled in a local, state, or federal conservation program, or the land is subject to a conservation easement; conducting agricultural operations; maintaining, repairing and replacing agricultural equipment; maintaining, repairing, and replacing agricultural facilities, provided that the replacement facility is no closer to the shoreline than the original facility; and maintaining agricultural lands under production or cultivation.

Even better would be the adoption of this definition as “Ongoing Agriculture” as this would eliminate the 5 year limit.

Either option protects farmers’ use of their land, but we need to defend this definition before the Council and let them know that these words matter to us… a lot!

Please let your County Council Member know that you are concerned about this issue today!

Contact them at here via email.