By Leah Leach
Peninsula Daily News
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The three county commissioners said in a letter to the state Department of Ecology last week that they had “made the difficult choice to pursue the 'adopt with a conditional use' approach to allowing for in-water finfish aquaculture in our [Shoreline Management Program].”
Ecology officials interpreted that to mean that the commissioners had opted for a conditional-use permit process — one of three options Ecology had suggested — to evaluate net pen fish farms, said Curt Hart, Ecology spokesman, on Friday.
The letter dated Monday means that the commissioners “will go ahead and adopt conditional-use permit criteria,” Hart said. “They will go ahead with the conditional permit process.”
But all three commissioners said that wasn't their intent when they approved the wording Monday.
“We have not OK'd fish farming,” said Commissioner David Sullivan. “We have not made a decision that it will be under a conditional-use permit.
“'Pursue' is the key word in there,” he added.
“We are pursuing considering it but have not decided to do it.”
County staff is developing proposed criteria for a possible conditional-use permit process, and both staff and commissioners plan to discuss the issue with experts to get more information about potential effects of fish farming on wild salmon in particular, as well as other concerns.
“To me, 'pursue' means we are looking at that,” said Commissioner Phil Johnson, who has adamantly opposed in-water fish farming.
“It was really clear in our meeting [Monday] that we said we were going to pursue, travel down a particular way,” Johnson said.
“We did not make a definite decision. . . . I made it very clear that I did not make a definitive decision.”
Hart said the next step would be for Ecology to understand what the county's decision is.
“If we didn't understand this correctly from this letter, then we have a duty and an obligation to work with the county to understand what their intent is going to be,” Hart said.
All three commissioners said that they had no intention of deceiving the state.
Instead they wanted to let the state know the county is still working on it.
Commissioners said they felt they faced a deadline and wanted to let Ecology know they want to continue to negotiate.
Ted Sturdevant, director of Ecology, had asked commissioners in an Aug. 31 letter to “provide us with your decision on the county's path forward by Oct. 1.”
“We were up against a wall,” said Commissioner John Austin, chairman of the board of county commissioners.
He and other commissioners say they fear that the state will take over rule-making for the shoreline master program update.
If that happens, Austin said, “the work that had been done by the county would potentially be lost and the county then would be presented with a shoreline master plan that had been crafted by DOE and wouldn't necessarily reflect what we thought was in the best interest of the county.”
Ecology has said it cannot take over only part of a plan. If it took over rule-making, it would take over all of it.
Said Johnson: “I feel like we've got an Ecology gun to our head.”
Hart said that Ecology has no hard and fast set deadline.
“Under state law, we could take over rule-making,” Hart said.
“Do we want to? Absolutely not. We want to make sure these are local processes, locally tailored.
“We want to reach agreement,” Hart emphasized.
“We're so close, we think we can come up with a solution.”
Net pen aquaculture is the final sticking point in the proposed update of the county's shoreline master program, which was originally sent to Ecology for approval in November 2010.
Ecology approved most of it in February 2011 except for a proposed ban of all fin-fish aquaculture, which raises fish such as Atlantic salmon in pens.
Ecology ruled that the county did not have the authority to forbid net pens.
And that point is non-negotiable, Hart said.
“What we want to do here, we want to have a shoreline master program for Jefferson County that is locally-driven and in compliance with state law,” Hart said.
“An outright prohibition on net pens doesn't comply with state law,” or with federal law, he added.
Commissioners disagree with Ecology's interpretation of the law, which is that marine net pen aquaculture is one of the water-dependent uses that must be balanced with others in shoreline management programs,
“Fish farming can be done anywhere. It can be done on land,” Sullivan said.
“You can do it a lot safer if you do it on land. . . . You wouldn't worry about viruses because you could kill the viruses before you release them into the water.”
Commissioners also point to Ecology's 2008 approval of a net pen aquaculture ban in Whatcom County's plan.
That was the first county shoreline program to be approved under new guidelines, Hart said.
“At that point, we didn't understand the significance of a ban on net pen aquaculture,” Hart said.
“The bottom line for Whatcom county is, we missed it. We made a mistake.”
When that county's plan is updated in 2014, “we will help the county reevaluate its current language regarding net pens in its shoreline master program,” Hart said.
Hart said that a conditional use permit approach would give Jefferson County “the power to evaluate proposals and set conditions for approval and denial of proposals.
“It doesn't suppose that a net pen aquaculture proposal would be approved or denied,” he said.
Hart said that Ecology would continue to work with Jefferson County.
“The next step is to make sure we have lines of communication open between the county and Ecology so we understand what the next step is going to be,” he said.
“The process is a partnership.”
Managing Editor/News Leah Leach can be reached at 360-417-3531 or at email@example.com.