Bruce Emery, Clallam County’s director of Community Development, chats with about 30 farmers on Nov. 7 to seek input on updating the county’s code in order to better help farms come into compliance. “This is going to be cooperative, constructive, and it’s not going to be punitive,” he said. (Matthew Nash/Olympic Peninsula News Group)

Bruce Emery, Clallam County’s director of Community Development, chats with about 30 farmers on Nov. 7 to seek input on updating the county’s code in order to better help farms come into compliance. “This is going to be cooperative, constructive, and it’s not going to be punitive,” he said. (Matthew Nash/Olympic Peninsula News Group)

Clallam working on farm guidelines

Survey open to public; action possible in ’24

Planning is underway to update Clallam County’s code to help farmers who may have been unknowingly out of compliance with various building and zoning guidelines.

For weeks, planners with the Department of Community Development have hosted meetings across Clallam County with farmers and the general public to gain input on how to improve the county’s code.

The next meeting is set for 6 p.m. Monday, Nov. 27, in the Port Angeles Library’s Carver Room, 2210 S. Peabody St., with a tentative meeting in December about potential options.

An amendment could be brought to the county’s planning commission and then to the board of commissioners in 2024.

Find updated information and surveys online at clallamcountywa.gov/1751/Agriculture-Accessory-Use-Public-Outreac.

Reason for changes

Bruce Emery, Clallam County’s director of Community Development, said at a Nov. 7 meeting in Sequim that the impetus for changes came after a series of complaints were made about farms — confirmed to be lavender farms — before Sequim Lavender Weekend about various code violations.

With the county being “complaint driven” for its code enforcement, Emery said he understands it can feel unfair, but it’s how the county has to operate for legal reasons.

“I think farms have been doing a good job because it’s been 10-15 years without so much as a complaint,” Emery said.

However, he said it doesn’t mean the complaints are right and there’s action to be taken.

“My commitment is we’re not doing anything until we get through this process, and then it’s more of an assistance to bring things into compliance,” Emery said.

During his presentation alongside Chief Deputy Director Holden Fleming for about 30 people in the Guy Cole Event Center, Emery said there are more “glaring issues (for his department) than to worry much about someone’s business that they’re hanging on by their fingertips to keep going.”

Said Emery: “This is going to be cooperative, constructive, and it’s not going to be punitive.”

County staffers said they seek prescriptive standards for all farms that likely wouldn’t be necessary for most of them as they’d meet the updated guidelines.

Emery said he’s not familiar with specifics behind the complaints but knows they mention unpermitted structures being used for commercial operations.

“If a building permit is needed, it’s needed,” he said. “We can’t negotiate that away. We’d be derelict in not ensuring that’s followed.”

Katina Hester, co-owner of Gnomelicious Lavender Farm, said she was one of the farms with a complaint.

“One of the things really important about this process is I can’t go out and get a permit to come into compliance because the current zone says I can’t have a retail building,” she said.

“So without this work these gentlemen are doing to help put this amendment in place, I can’t become compliant, which means I can’t open up if they do have to enforce in the future.

“This (process) is just going to give us an avenue to compliance.”

Requirements

In documentation provided to farmers, planners wrote there’s been confusion about when commercial building permits are needed; it’s for any building used for commercial purposes.

They wrote there also needs to be updated standards for U-pick, corn mazes, tractor rides and farm tours with more specifications for adequate access, parking, lighting and more.

By naming a few avenues to explore and update, planners said it’s “intended to highlight the need for balance between the economic needs of local farmers to diversify their farm operations with the need to ensure the long-term protection of working farms and the need to protect rural areas from significant encroachment of commercial or industrial operations.”

Emery said code language allows only a temporary retail stand and not a store, but he feels a conditional use permit would likely be “too onerous.”

“What I don’t want to do is create a set of prescriptive standards that no one needs,” he said.

“That doesn’t make any sense. It has to be germane to what you’re already doing.”

Rick Olson with Lavender Connection said lavender farmers already are operating temporary farm stands a few months a year. Emery called that a solid argument.

Fleming said while a building permit would be required, planners want to come up with standards so farmers don’t need to justify to them if a building meets certain requirements.

“Instead, I point you to a list you’ll help us come up with, and we say, ‘Yes, yes, yes, and go prosper. It’s a preferred land use, you guys got it.’ We want to help you be successful.”

Emery said he doesn’t feel good about farms possibly being one zoning code complaint away from being closed.

“We have made a deliberate decision to not take any action on the complaints received this year on these matters until we get to do an update to offset a lion’s share of the issues,” he said.

“What remains will likely only be some form of permitting,” Emery continued. “If there’s a way of reducing fees for permitting in the interest of preserving farms, for crying out loud, that’s something we could do.”

While the county’s comprehensive plan doesn’t provide guidance on how to allow a farm store, he said after this process they should be able to do it if they add newer elements such as on-site retail, farm tours and parking.

“If we’re able to address those with simple prescriptive standards, the farmer could continue with those guidelines,” Emery said.

He added that the state’s Growth Management Act and county’s comprehensive plan encourage small-scale manufacturing of products grown on site.

Emery said county staff is primarily concerned with protecting the agricultural land and protecting rural communities from encroachment of commercial use.

Concerns posed

At the Nov. 7 meeting, some farmers shared concerns about providing information to the county that results in required permits and expenses they cannot afford.

“What you’re saying is that, even with these changes, we may still have an issue,” Emery said. “If you ding us with a permit requirement, that may be it (for our farm).

“Our interest is not to do enforcement,” he emphasized. “Our interest is to do a code change.”

He added: “You guys letting us know what the new characteristics of the modern farm are that you don’t think we’re aware of — that’s going to be valuable.”

That includes ideas on thresholds for parking, events and more, Emery said.

Olson encouraged planners to update the code to reflect more current farms of the last 25 years.

“What are the common things done on 5- , 10- , 20-acre parcels?” he asked. “The community has accepted these, and there have been very few problems.”

Emery agreed calling farms today a “different animal” as they’ve diversified to make a living.

“The old rules don’t apply,” he said. “We need to rethink this in terms of what people can do so we can diversify your business but do it in a way not causing harm to (agricultural) lands or neighboring rural communities.”

However, both he and Fleming said they need to find a balance in doing so.

Both Beth Pratt, executive director of the Sequim-Dungeness Valley Chamber of Commerce, and Clea Rome, Clallam County WSU Extension director, said they’d submit information for farms wishing to remain anonymous.

Pratt can be reached at director@sequimchamber.com, and Rome at clea.rome@wsu.edu.

Timeline

Holden said planners’ timeline is “incredibly aggressive” to get something done, but they’d agree to come back to talk more if it looks like farmers need more time.

Emery said there are mechanisms in place, such as a festival ordinance, that could be used to help bring farms into compliance, even temporarily.

The Sequim Lavender Festival has not been operating with this legislation, he said.

“I’d like to see it used for protecting participants in the festival because I would see it working best where the (Chamber of Commerce), for example, might be the lead for the festival, and they’d tell us what farms are participating so that a complaint of no (conditional use permit) could be handled a different way.”

Pratt arranged a meeting with county planners, about 10 farms, and the fire marshal on Nov. 8 about building codes and permits. Eight Sequim lavender farms also hosted county staff for tours on Nov. 17 with Pratt saying there was good conversation and practical solutions discussed.

She said the building and zoning issues “walk hand-in-hand (but) the specifics of the building codes around the structures on the farms is a separate set of questions.”

Emery said they are only looking to update zoning codes.

Farmers and county officials met under the assumption that zoning codes would be updated to allow the buildings that already exist to operate how they have in the past, Pratt said, and then hypothetically what building codes apply to barns, retail stores and farm stands.

Pratt said she felt Emery and his staff “are working to hurry this amendment through in time for 2024 planning on our farms, and I think what they are doing is both vitally important and mindful in its timing.”

“I felt that they are truly present to listen and were hearing what our farm owners had to say,” she said.

Via email, Emery said he’s felt the community meetings have been great.

“I feel we, as county staff, have learned a lot from the comments received and other outreach we have done with area farms,” he said.

“I also think we have been largely successful in imparting our goal, which is to find a reasonable balance between allowing farms latitude to diversify while maintaining valuable farmland and protecting rural communities from inappropriate uses.”

Bruce McCloskey with B&B Family Farm said at the Nov. 7 meeting he was interested in hearing planners’ attitudes and he felt they didn’t express themselves to have all the answers, and that “they’re not trying to put us out of business.”

He said his initial concern was whether or not they’d be able to continue as a business after the code review, and he’s “pleased to hear that’s not your objective.”

For updates on the Clallam County Agriculture Accessory Uses discussion, visit https://clallamcountywa.gov/1751/Agriculture-Accessory-Use-Public-Outreac.

________

Matthew Nash is a reporter with the Olympic Peninsula News Group, which is composed of Sound Publishing newspapers Peninsula Daily News, Sequim Gazette and Forks Forum. Reach him at matthew.nash@sequimgazette.com.

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