Franklin farmers will have to apply to state for ag burn permits

Franklin County commissioners don't want any part of the liability for the state's agricultural burning program.

That means the county's farmers will have to apply directly to the state Department of Ecology for agricultural burn permits for at least the next three months while the commissioners try to convince state legislators to change the permit law to address county concerns.

Under current practice, the state agency decides when agricultural burning is allowed, said Kary Peterson of the Department of Ecology.

In Franklin County, the county and the Franklin Conservation District had been issuing permits for agricultural burns, he said. Existing law allows the state to delegate permitting authority to local agencies.

Ryan Verhulp, the county's chief civil deputy prosecutor, recently pointed out to commissioners that the proposed 2011-12 contract with the Department of Ecology specified that the county would hold the liability for the conservation district's participation in the program.

Peterson said he didn't see any reason that someone would sue the conservation district over the state's smoke management program. His department, not the conservation district, makes the burn decisions, and the district follows state rules for issuing permits.

But Verhulp told commissioners that when people file lawsuits, they name every entity involved, not matter how minor its role.

Verhulp agreed the risk was slim. But if a claim for damages were filed, the county might have to pay up to the $25,000 before its insurance covered the rest. Such a claim could boost the cost of county insurance premiums, he said.

Mark Nielson, manager of the conservation district, said he would feel more comfortable if state law specified that the county and conservation district weren't liable for the burn program.

Commissioner Brad Peck asked if the state would accept the liability.

Peterson said he asked the state Attorney General's Office that question and was told "no."

Having local agencies handle the permit program does make it more efficient for farmers, Peck conceded.

But the burden of implementing state law filters down to the county, conservation district and farmers who face the liability, he said.

It's "bad government" for the state to set a requirement and leave it to local government to implement it, he said.