OLYMPIA – The state’s environmental community is fighting a plan to allow four lightly populated Eastern Washington counties to opt out of the Growth Management Act.
But in trying to generate opposition to the proposed change, the group Futurewise seriously overstated the impact that law has on Ferry County, one of four that would be allowed to drop the law under HB 1094.
The growth act is protecting nearly three-quarters of a million acres of farmland in Ferry County, keeping it from being “paved over,” the Seattle-based organization claimed in a recent website posting and a separate appeal for funds.
“In Washington, it’s far too easy to pave over farmland if it’s not designated as such,” the group said on its website. “That’s why we were fighting so hard to get the county to properly designate and protect the best of the county’s 749,452 acres of land in farms and ranching.”
Wait a minute, said state Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, sponsor of the bill. There aren’t 750,000 acres of farmland subject to growth restrictions in Ferry County.
Ferry County officials say Kretz is right: Of the county’s 1.4 million acres, just under 300,000 are in private hands, and about 160,000 acres are farmland. Most land inside the county belongs to the federal or state governments or the Colville Confederated Tribes, which are exempt from state Growth Management Act rules.
Three counties covered by the bill – Ferry, Pend Oreille and Columbia – grew very slowly in the past 10 years, and the fourth, Garfield, lost population. All of them opted in to the growth act years ago and received state money for things like the development of a Comprehensive Plan. The bill would allow the four to opt out by the end of the year if they choose to do so.
Pend Oreille County might not, said Diane Wear, a commissioner in that northeast county who has concerns about the process and loss of tax revenue if the county does drop the law. “We have not had that discussion as a board. But we are in compliance (with the law). We do have an adopted Comp Plan.”
Garfield County likely would opt out, said Dean Burton, a commissioner in the southeast county for the last 18 years. Garfield opted in years ago to be eligible for state grants, but the only grants they got were for complying with the law.
Even if Ferry County opts out, there are other laws that protect agricultural and other “critical resource” lands, said Planning Director Irene Whipple. “Cities and counties still have protection.”
Kretz’s bill passed the House of Representatives with a healthy margin over the weekend and is headed for more action, and possibly changes, in the Senate. It’s opposed by the state’s association of cities as well as Futurewise and the Sierra Club; it’s supported by the state’s association of county officials.
Members of Futurewise conceded Monday their facts were off. They took the figure from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ag census for Ferry County, which contains a caveat that apparently went unnoticed: All tribal land is listed as agricultural in the USDA report.
“We forgot to take out the Colville Indian Reservation,” said April Putney, co-director for statewide policy and advocacy. The group sent out a correction but stands by its opposition to the bill: “GMA is a state policy, it should be followed across the state.”
Kitty Klitzke of the group’s Spokane office said she probably would have caught the mistake had she seen the original website posting or the funding request before it was sent out. It was put together by co-workers in Seattle who aren’t from Eastern Washington, she said: “It was not a willful deception. Everybody makes mistakes.”
As for the suggestion that farmland was being paved over, Klitzke said the term wasn’t meant to be taken literally and would be understood by members as meaning the land could be subject to adverse development. But this is a more complex issue than was mentioned in the e-mail, she acknowledged.