Jim Turvey is worried about the huge hole an orchardist dug this spring next to his property on Cottonwood Canyon Road.
About 4 feet deep, 40 feet wide and roughly 1,200 feet long, the hole dug by Borton Orchards is at the bottom of a steep hill and nearly reaches Turvey’s fence. A large irrigation pond has been constructed at the end of the hole for water storage.
“How it’s going to hurt us is we’re going to have to water more right here,” Turvey, a small hay grower, said of a swath of his property that runs along his fence. He fears that his water at the edge of his field will seep into his neighbor’s hole.
Several blocks to the west on Gibbler Road, Tim and Gretchen Hall are concerned about excavation work by another orchardist -- Brewer Orchards -- next to their property. A large irrigation pond was installed in one area and cattails, trees and other vegetation were cleared from another area. The couple questions why permits were not obtained through the county for the work because the area is considered a “potential wetland,” a land categorization used by the county along with a designated wetland.
“It’s just crazy what they’re doing,” Gretchen Hall said. “I mean they’re not taking out permits; there’s no engineering, and it seems like that would be important because if (the pond) fails, then what?”
Several phone calls to both orchards seeking comment were not returned.
Contrary to the belief by Turvey and the Halls, the county determined that neither project occurred in a flood plain nor adversely impacts neighboring properties, which means permits were not required, said Yakima County Building Official Dave Saunders.
Grading and excavation projects that move less than 500 yards of dirt -- projects commonly used for agricultural purposes -- are exempt from the permitting process if deemed not to have any adverse impacts on the environment or neighboring properties. Exemptions often cause a stir among neighbors in areas where suburbia collides with farming operations. In fact, many of those exemptions were created for farming practices in the first place, said Yakima County Public Services Director Vern Redifer.
“And I think that it’s probably in recognition that we are a big ag county and these practices have been going on for years,” he said.
Now, complaints are on the rise, Saunders said. Normally, Saunders’ office sees about six complaints a year over similar issues, but this year the number of complaints has doubled -- to 12 so far -- as growers construct more irrigation ponds to meet increasing demand for water storage.
“They’re trying to capture their runoff water, use their runoff more efficiently,” Saunders said.
Many orchardists use irrigation ponds -- more commonly called frost ponds -- to store water before the irrigation season begins in March. Water stored in the ponds is sprayed on fruit trees to keep buds alive during freezing temperatures. Frozen buds remain at about 32 degrees when temperatures dip well below that.
Farmers are now using frost ponds to supplement water use during the irrigation season, said Troy Peters, an assistant professor at Washington State University’s agriculture extension in Prosser.
“Irrigation districts like it because it gives farmers water to pull from in addition to their allocation if they need it,” he said.
Both Turvey and the Halls disagree with the determination of the county that the projects next to them did not require permits. Turvey points to grading regulations he obtained from the county’s website, which state that grading exceeding 500 cubic yards of dirt must comply with the state Environmental Policy Act, which requires a plan to mitigate against possible environmental degradation.
Turvey argues that his neighbor moved much more dirt than that. “They spent a month out here just getting that rock out of there,” he said.
Saunders said just because the project is larger doesn’t mean that it’s not exempt.
“It’s not endangering the public or neighboring properties,” he said.
But to be sure a project is exempt, Saunders said everyone should at least ask the county if they need a permit, something neither the Bortons nor Brewers did, Saunders said.
County officials looked at those projects after receiving complaints, Saunders added, and determined there would be no adverse effect on the environment or neighboring properties.
The Halls argue that grading work by their neighbor is within 15 feet of a storage building on their property, which they say requires a permit.
The Halls said they first wanted to build their home on property that lined up with a spring and a series of ponds that tie into the area where the grading work is being done. But they say the county objected because the area is deemed a potential wetland, which would invoke a set of regulations. A series of natural ponds and a natural spring dot the area.
“They were emphatic about the guidelines, and where everything is supposed to go,” Tim Hall said, overlooking the area graded by his neighbor. “If you designate this as a wetland and then somebody comes in and does this, and they say no harm, no foul.”
The Halls complain that regulations don’t apply to “deep pockets,” large companies with significant financial resources.
Redifer rejected the notion that anyone gets preferential treatment.
“It doesn’t matter how deep anyone’s pockets are -- they still have to follow requirements,” Redifer said.
The work in the potential wetland area doesn’t require any permits because it’s not having an adverse impact on the area, he said.
Saunders said grading exemptions that don’t involve building construction apply to everyone, not just farmers.
“If it falls within the parameters here, it’s exempt no matter who is doing the work,” he said.
But most people who aren’t farmers usually grade to build a structure, which requires permits. And depending on where such a project is, other factors could be triggered as well, such as an environmental review, he said.
“It gets real complex,” he said.