“Right to farm” ordinance back on the table for county

MONTESANO — The Grays Harbor County commissioners directed the Planning & Building Department on Monday to craft a new “right to farm” ordinance, reviving discussions on the topic for the first time in years.

Grays Harbor-Pacific County Farm Bureau members have been pushing for a county farming ordinance to protect agriculture and forestry activities for almost eight years. The basic concept of the ordinance is to protect farmers from lawsuits and nuisance complaints when normal farm activity happens — everything from spreading manure, spraying fields to kill bugs or even just chopping down trees.

Local Farm Bureau President JoAnn Shaffner had worked with county officials in the crafting of the critical areas ordinance. When conversations turned to farmland, Shaffner brought up the “right to farm” issue, although it was never incorporated in the final version of the critical areas ordinance when it was approved back in June. At that time, Planning & Building Director Lee Napier asked the county commissioners for guidance.

Napier brought the issue to the commissioners’ Monday morning meeting after Shaffner again pressed the issue. Commissioners Terry Willis and Herb Welch directed Napier to start working on the ordinance and bring it back. Napier plans to conduct some public meetings on the potential ordinance.

In 2008, Willis actually campaigned on the right to farm ordinance, calling it one of her top priorities. Willis, now seeking a second term, owns farmland in the Brady bottoms area with her husband, Greg.

Willis said the issue hasn’t come up until now because she wanted to see the results of a study by the William D. Ruckelshaus Center, which was looking at conflicts between the agriculture and environmental community. That study resulted in a voluntary stewardship program meant to oversee watersheds on agriculture land. Grays Harbor County opted into the program last year, although it has more to do with wetlands and buffers than dealing with nuisance issues among neighbors.

“All it does is ask you to be aware that if you move into an area that has timber or agricultural activities that the things typical to those areas, from noise to truck traffic to even flies, is possible,” Willis said. “What we don’t want to happen is have someone move to an area, think it’s beautiful and then have all the trees harvested next to their house. This is just an awareness for both the buyer and the working farm.”

The original Farm Bureau proposal would have required a potential homeowner to sign a document filed with the County Auditor’s Office upon sale of a home, acknowledging that agriculture-related activity is nearby and will continue, regardless of whether somebody moves next door.

Willis said she is recommending the new version of the ordinance not require those signature pages.

“Our Planning Department already notifies people when they come in to get a permit that they’re within the vicinity of an agricultural property,” Willis said. During the regular afternoon meeting on Monday, the clerk of the board of county commissioners read a statement informing the public of the situation.

“Grays Harbor Planning Commissioners and the Board of County Commissioners both considered a discussion and draft ordinance in 2006 and 2007,” the statement reads. “In 2007, staff expressed concerns that several disclosure requirements would be cumbersome and would not fulfill the intent to govern nuisances and that existing codes reasonably protected agricultural activities. The agricultural community has also recognized these points as limiting factors in the earlier language and worked with legislators to resolve concerns. Based on that effort, it seems reasonable to revisit this issue. Therefore, the Board of County Commissioners director the Planning & Building Director to move forward with development of working documents that support consideration of a right to farm ordinance.”