In 2006, the case of Swinomish v. Skagit. Co ruled that agriculture is not exempt from the critical areas ordinance required by Washington’s Growth Management Act (GMA). This ultimately, in 2011, lead to GMA being amended to allow for an alternative approach to the protect critical areas that are on farmland or affected by it. This amendment, known as the Voluntary Stewardship Program (VSP), was born out of the recommendations and hard work of the William D. Ruckelshaus Center. Having been tasked by the state legislator, the Ruckelshaus Center set out on a fact finding mission involving the assembling of several different groups of stakeholders to eventually bring recommendations to the legislator on how to bridge of the conflict of protecting critical areas and preserving agricultural viability.
Counties were given the option on whether they wanted to opt into this new approach or continue protecting critical areas under a more traditional GMA route. 28 out of the 39 counties in Washington chose the VSP route, including Pend Oreille County, which then placed a 3 year moratorium on critical areas planning updates for those counties who opted in. Those counties which chose not to participate need to continue to protect critical areas as mandated by RCW 36.70a.060. The years between 2011 and 2015 were spent preparing the program for implementation, and was only recently funded 7.6 million dollars on June 30, 2015.
The Other Option
Counties are obligated to protect critical areas and not opting into the VSP means that the more traditional GMA approach would need to be employed. This would involve a stricter applications of buffers and regulations that are meant to be of a more “one size fits all” solution. Critical areas have buffers and regulations dependent on their categories and are not typically intended to be modified. Those buffers are created by local governments but are subject to state agency oversight. While these buffers serve to protect critical areas, they sometimes do not account for the variety of terrain and conditions that can change the amount of buffer needed to still adequately protect critical areas.
If a county chooses to opt out later in the process or eventually “fails out” in its implementation then it will revert back to the more traditional approach by default.
Elements of the VSP
The VSP is administered by the Conservation Commission, who establishes the policies and procedures for implementing the program. The Commission is responsible for administering the funds, reviewing work plans, and creating technical panels. Another component of their role is to review the program’s effectiveness and report back to the state legislator of its progress. They will provide administrative support to the counties that choose to participate, as well as coordinate with other state agencies.
It is the County’s responsibility to create or appoint what are known as ‘Work Groups’, which have their own roles and responsibilities which will be discussed below. The County must assemble a broad spectrum of stakeholders who are concerned about the health of the land to create a Work Group. At the minimum, this group would be representatives of agricultural, tribal, and environmental groups. The County is also responsible for providing technical support for the Work Group.
The Work Group must work together to create a Work Plan that will guide critical areas protection as it pertains to agriculture; with the goals of, as mentioned earlier, maintaining the viability of agriculture and maintaining the current conditions of critical areas. The Work Plan then must then be submitted to the director of the Conservation Commission for approval, who will either approve or it give reasons for its disapproval. The work plan must then be incorporated into the county’s development regulations. After 10 years after receiving funding the watershed groups must report to its county and to the director the conservation commission whether it has met its benchmarks and goals, every subsequent 5 years the groups must repeat this process. If the benchmarks are not being met between these 5 year reports then a traditional GMA route must be employed.