Franklin County unsure about Voluntary Stewardship Program

Franklin County commissioners aren't sure if an alternative approach to managing agricultural lands would be better for county farmers.

Commissioners discussed Wednesday whether to opt-in to the state's new Voluntary Stewardship Program. About 25 people attended.

Counties have until Jan. 22 to decide whether to join the recently created state program, which would be an alternative to the critical area development regulations mandated by the state Growth Management Act for protecting areas used for agriculture.

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 David Manterola told commissioners that the state program seems the best way the county can keep local control.

And farmer Clint Didier said it doesn't do the county much good to be involved in the voluntary program. The county should take a stand and not participate.

But Bob Whitelatch of RC Farms and Claar Cellars said opting out isn't a real choice. Staying with the status quo means accepting what the state decides, he said.

"Without even seeing ours, I know ours is better than theirs," he said.

Stacy Gilmore, Franklin County Farm Bureau president, said the program would provide a little more protection.

After opting in, the first time the county could quit the program would be three years later, said Jerrod MacPherson, county planning and building director.

If the county doesn't join, it would have to continue using the county's Critical Area Ordinance to meet requirements of the Growth Management Act for agriculture activities. That would mean reviewing, and, if necessary, revising the ordinance by July 2013, MacPherson said.

Benton County commissioners have not yet decided whether to opt-in to the program.

Jim Follansbee said he was concerned about what may happen if the county does opt in.

The watershed group the county would create would have the power to adopt a work plan to enhance critical areas that the director of the state Conservation Commission approves, he said. From that point on, it appears as though the county would lose control over what is done, he said.

Follansbee said he strongly encourages commissioners to designate themselves as coordinators for the watershed group if they decide to join the program.

The Voluntary Stewardship Program includes a statement that no one can require the discontinuation of existing agricultural activity, whether land is left fallow or crops are changed, said Dan Wood, Washington Farm Bureau director of local affairs.

Ideally, Wood said, the bureau would like to see the Growth Management Act repealed.

Commissioner Rick Miller said he wanted to do more research and get some questions answered before making a decision. Commissioner Brad Peck said he wants to know what the county would be giving up by joining.