Standing up for farming, in a field of varying views

County proposals on roadside stands, other topics, stir up farmers

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

Published:

 

Currently, Proebstel farmer Gary Boldt has only flowers to sell.

But when he does have lettuce, cabbage, cauliflower, sweet corn, Brussels sprouts and other types of produce, he'll easily fill a 1,000-square-foot roadside farm stand, which he sets up at his 80-acre farm, Velvet Acres Gardens.

Boldt, president of the Clark-Cowlitz County Farm Bureau, testified Tuesday to Clark County commissioners that he would like county code to allow 2,000-square-foot roadside farm stands. Under existing code, roadside stands are supposed to be only 200 or 300 square feet, depending on the zone. A proposed code would expand the size to 1,000 square feet and allow the roadside stands in all zones in unincorporated areas, including urban residential zones.

But Boldt didn't feel the proposed size, while bigger, was big enough.

And that's just one example of how commissioners — including Boldt's brother, Chairman Marc Boldt — thought they were being helpful to farmers when farmers felt they were being hurtful.

Commissioners had been scheduled Tuesday to adopt codes regulating roadside stands and agriculture markets (which are different than roadside stands in that they are permanent structures, such as the type found at Bi-Zi Farms), and adopt an administrative form that would be used to keep a record of new agricultural structures.

After feedback from farmers, commissioners didn't do anything except set the controversial topics over to a June 12 meeting.

Under the proposal, structures such as barns or personal riding arenas would remain exempt from building permit requirements and there would be no fee to fill out a form. Other counties require a permit or a land-use review for agricultural structures, said Marty Snell, director of the Community Development Department, so Clark County already has a lenient policy. Snell said the county wants a record of the buildings, however. Among other reasons, the county's code enforcement officers get complaints about non-exempt uses, such as when someone has a human living in what's supposed to be a barn, and the county wants to have a record of when the structure was built.

The county also proposed to expand the state's definition of an "agricultural structure" by noting that while the building may not be used for human habitation, employees can be in it for seasonal processing, treating or packaging of agricultural or forest products.

Commissioners thought they were doing farmers a favor by developing ways to preserve local agriculture by putting current practices into code and clarifying what can be done even when farmers live within urban growth areas. Commissioner Steve Stuart said the ideas, including the regulations regarding roadside stands, grew out of an Agricultural Preservation Committee formed in 2008; the ideas were later forwarded to the Rural Lands Task Force. The commissioners didn't accept all of the task force's recommendations; for example, the task force proposed farm stands be as large as 2,500 square feet.

More than a dozen farmers testified Tuesday, and the majority of them just wanted the commissioners to leave them alone. In some cases, codes have been ignored for years, so why should the county start cracking down now?

Bill Zimmerman, owner of Bi-Zi Farms, said even though the county wasn't going to start requiring building permits for agricultural structures, the structures would still have to be built in accordance with the state building code.

That has always been the case, said Jim Muir, the county's chief building official. That came as news to Commissioner Tom Mielke, as well as some of the farmers.

"We've never built to code. We've never even thought about code," said John Coop of Ridgefield. He said he understands the reasoning behind state laws, but said the practical applications are unworkable for farmers in Clark County.

Brush Prairie farmer Alex Mattila, one of many speakers who received applause after his testimony, said county employees should have better things to do with their time than come up with rules that make life more difficult for farmers. And if they don't have better things to do, the county should lay them off. He said he doesn't want the county to know if he puts up agricultural structures on his property. Other farmers were leery, too, wondering if the form would just be a first step toward greater regulation.

One farmer questioned why the county has any authority over what he does on his property, while another speaker said when commissioners give code enforcement officers power, they are shutting down small businesses.

Speakers also criticized the fact that if the agriculture structure will be used for retail sales and the members of the public will be coming and going, they will need a building permit. Commercial riding arenas, too, would require a permit because the public has an expectation that someone has inspected the building to ensure it was built to code, Muir said.

About the codes regarding retail sales, Anne Lawrence, who said 40 families get vegetables through her CSA program, said, "We have a right to farm, but we seem to be losing our right to sell."

Farmers said they are already subject to too many regulations and they don't need more barriers to making money.

Small farms have been a growing phenomenon in Clark County, which has lost thousands of acres of farmland to housing.

From 1982 to 1992, the county's farm acreage, as calculated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, dropped from 134,619 to 82,967.

According to the USDA charts from 2009, the biggest share of Clark County's 2,101 farms are fairly modest operations. The average size of a Clark County farm is 37 acres; that's about one-tenth the size of the average farm in Washington, 381 acres.

On the income side, about three-quarters of the county's farms -- 1,556 -- did less than $5,000 in business, and 1,285 owners had a primary occupation other than farming.

Zimmerman told commissioners that if they want to admit that they are making the code changes in the name of public safety or greater government oversight, that's fine. But don't pretend that the codes would, as written in a staff report, "support, enhance and preserve local agriculture."

"It's a slap in the face to any of us in the agriculture community," Zimmerman said. "It doesn't."

Commissioners, who said they will consider ditching the idea to make people fill out a form for their agricultural structure, will take up the matters again at 10 a.m. June 12 at the Public Service Center, 1300 Franklin St.

Stephanie Rice: 360-735-4508 or stephanie.rice@columbian.com.