County passes Right to Farm ordinance

Grays Harbor County commissioners used the last day of the year — and the final session for two of them — to pass a “right-to-farm” ordinance intended to protect farmers, forest landowners and shellfish growers from nuisance lawsuits arising from normal farm activity. The 3-0 approval included the final votes cast by outgoing commissioners Terry Willis and Mike Wilson, who both lost re-election bids last year.

Willis noted the effort to draft and pass the farm bill has taken nearly six years since it was first proposed by the state Farm Bureau. It adds protections that go beyond existing state safeguards and also complements a state right-to-farm bill, she said.

“The group that sat at the table included forestry, the shellfish industry, state agencies such as DNR (Department of Natural Resources), and regular citizens who had properties,” Willis said of the discussions that led to the ordinance.

The document had been available for public review for the past 10 days. The process establishes notification by the county’s Planning & Building division to potential homeowners in farming areas that they may be subjected to conditions arising from those activities. It includes agriculture as well as aquaculture and forest operations.

“Those conditions … if such operations are consistent with commonly accepted good management practices. shall not be considered a nuisance unless the activity or practice has a substantial adverse effect on public health and safety,” the notice will state.

East Wishkah Road landowner Cheryl Campbell was the only citizen who questioned the new ordinance, but she withdrew her main objection when she was told by Willis that property owners with legitimate damage or issues still could bring suit.

“If you have a legitimate lawsuit against any of these entities, it doesn’t stop you from going to court,” Willis said, adding the new ordinance does not allow a farmer to violate any existing law or regulation.

“There are no laws out there that this ordinance would override or would put in place,” Willis said.

Campbell’s other concern was that the county could do more to encourage and enhance farming activities.

“This ordinance benefits only commercial interests, and that’s a concern for me,” she said. Several other landowners spoke in favor of the proposal, including oyster grower Brady Engvall and Shaffner Farms owners Owen and JoAnn Shaffner.

Engvall noted that oyster beds in Grays Harbor have been dramatically altered in recent years because of dredging to open up shipping lanes for the Port of Grays Harbor. That has caused oyster growers to seek newly protected beds, which often are closer to the shorelines.

“We have to find nooks and crannies – little places where we can farm,” Engvall said. State right-to-farm protections, however, offer no help to those involved in aquaculture, he told commissioners.

“All of our farming operations are the very same that land operations have. We work at night, we work at odd hours, we’re noisy,” he said. “But with this ordinance, we get protections.”

The Shaffners, who farm vegetables, hay and berries in the Wynooche Valley, urged passage of the county ordinance to protect farmers. “We just want to avoid these nuisance lawsuits,” JoAnn Shaffner said. “Agriculture is a huge industry in this area and probably will continue to grow. … It’s a boon to Grays Harbor, and I would hate to see more farmers go out of business” because of lawsuits.

Willis said the intent of the new legislation is to let potential new buyers know what they are facing when they purchase property in farming communities.

“It’s a protection for them to understand that we do have these activities going on,” Willis said. “We have forestry going on here. There may be logging practices in their areas. We have agriculture going on here, and we certainly have shellfish activities going on. We want to make sure that they understand things may change. The area around them might change.”