Benton and Franklin counties may be part of an alternative approach to managing agricultural lands despite some uncertainty about the new program.
Commissioners in both counties have unanimously approved opting-in to the state's new Voluntary Stewardship Program.
Counties had until Jan. 22 to decide whether to join the recently created state program that would be an alternative to the critical area development regulations mandated by the state Growth Management Act for protecting areas used for agriculture.
The new program is seen as a way to balance the needs of farmers and ranchers with the need to protect critical areas and it aims to help counties avoid challenges to rules such as buffers between farms and streams.
The program protects existing and ongoing agricultural activity as long as no new harm or degradation is done to critical areas. That applies whether land is left fallow or crops are changed, said officials.
The act was passed by the state Legislature in 1990 to create a method for comprehensive land use planning involving citizens, communities, counties, cities and the private sector to prevent uncoordinated and unplanned growth.
Franklin County farmer Clint Didier opposed the new program, claiming it is the beginning of government trying to take over land, water and private property rights.
But others thanked commissioners for making a difficult decision and keeping the option of participating in the program.
Even with opting in, Franklin County Commissioner Rick Miller said the county can get out of the program by refusing state funding or opting-out after three years. The program does not go into effect for the county until the state comes up with funding.
And the county is low on the priority list for money from the state, Miller said.
Accepting state dollars triggers the formation of a committee of representatives from farm and conservation groups, tribes and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, as well as a watershed group, he said.
The county commissioners could either have the power to adopt a work plan to enhance critical areas that the director of the state Conservation Commission approves or delegate that authority to another group, Miller said.
"We have a way out," he said.
This was the only chance for counties to opt in.
Jim Beaver, Benton County Commission chairman, said the sticking point is money.
The state may or may not come up with adequate money to administer the new program, he said. And without the money, the program doesn't go anywhere.
The program appears to be an alternative to waiting for rules on agriculture and critical areas to show up and then having to deal with them, Beaver said. It's a chance to have local involvement in the process.