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Crowd vents frustration over proposed land rules

THE OLYMPIAN

Supporters and opponents of the county's proposed rules for land use in critical areas agreed Tuesday that the draft is so unclear that it's hard to understand how it affects them.

The dense document continued to spark anger and frustration for a third night of public comment Tuesday, when nearly 500 people attended what was meant to be the last in a series of public hearings on the issue.

The second and third hearings were scheduled after as many as 1,000 people swamped the first hearing, and many were turned away.

Now the county's volunteer planning commissioners say they might have to schedule yet another meeting to accommodate all the public input on the set of rules required by the state to protect wildlife habitat, environmentally sensitive areas and places where houses can be endangered by natural phenomena such as landslides and earthquakes.

Property owners -- farmers in particular -- contested what they think is an unfair restriction of their land use. The crowd was unruly, as it was at the first public hearing: Supporters of the ordinance were booed, while opponents were applauded.

"The county really blew it on this," said Vince Cottone, who lives outside Tumwater and favors the ordinance, but wishes it could be clearer.

"This is impossible to read," said Cottone, leafing through a worn copy marked with Post-it Notes. "They should've had a plain-English version."

Representatives from the state Farm Bureau reasserted their concern that the ordinance will hit farmers with restrictions, although county officials have refuted their interpretation.

Dan Wood, director of government relations for the Farm Bureau, said he thinks the rules will have crushing effects on the county's farmers and will make new farming all but impossible.

County planners have insisted that the extreme restrictions feared by the Farm Bureau are not included in the proposed ordinance. But Wood argues that the ordinance isn't clear enough to rule them out.

"The language in the document is extremely important," he said. "People have a right to know how their land, their rights and their privacy will be affected."

The Farm Bureau and the county disagree over whether the rules are retroactive.

It's a difference of definitions: Although existing farms are exempt from the new standards, in cases where they are found to contaminate sensitive areas, they will be asked to change their methods -- for example, fencing off wetlands or spreading less manure.

"That means you can do what you're doing, but you have to change how you're doing it," Wood said. "That's retroactive."

Farmer Darrell MacDonald, who raises hay and cattle at a family farm that's been operating since the 1930s, said he isn't opposed to the rules themselves, but has concerns about the way they affect agriculture and wants more clarity. "I think agriculture has been left in the lurch," MacDonald said.

If his farm is not exempt, wetland buffers will take up about a quarter of his hayfields and limit the area where he can graze cattle. He's not sure what to expect. "(I'm worried about) the loose interpretation of the upcoming regulations," the farmer said. "They're too general."

County planners have acknowledged the draft could have been clearer, and said it will be revised with that goal in sight before being finalized.

Supporters of the ordinance hope that's the case.

"I hope they'll listen to the comments tonight and make it a better ordinance, but I hope they don't throw it all out or weaken it," said Cyrilla Cook, an Olympia resident and member of the environmental group People for Puget Sound. Cook was booed and jeered when she spoke up in favor of the ordinance.

"We look at the critical areas ordinance as a set of safeguards to protect public health ... and some of the things that make people want to live in Thurston County," said Kate Jackson, of the public interest group Futurewise.