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Washington State "Wetlands" Ruling Prevents Man from Farming

By Peyton Knight, Contributing Writer (PRFA, April 24, 2003)

In 1998, Jim Starr purchased eleven acres of beautiful agricultural property on the Long Beach peninsula, located in Pacific County, Washington. It was here where he would settle with his family and pursue his passion of farming. The conditions on the peninsula were perfect for cultivating certain types of mushrooms. Full of entrepreneurial spirit, Jim planned to grow and harvest a diverse variety of mushrooms for sale in multiple markets. He spent $100,000 of his own money to renovate an old barn, thereby creating an office, laboratory and shop. Jim would have gourmet mushrooms for restaurants and mushrooms that produce the anti-carcinogenic Taxol for the medical industry. He would even produce mushrooms that contain a certain proprietary enzyme, that when added to straw, becomes an essential tool in cleaning up oil spills. Everything was set. He had jumped through the necessary hoops, purchased a work permit and filed a Pacific County Development Application. Jim was ready to begin his venture. That was five years ago. It is 2003 and Jim has yet to harvest a single mushroom or groom a single spore, and likely never will.

Instead, Jim has been mired in a five-year battle with the Army District Corps of Army Engineers of Seattle, Washington- fighting for the right to farm on his officially designated "agricultural" property. The Corps claims that Jim's property, although historically used for farming and even classified for tax purposes as "agricultural," is in fact a wetland, and therefore off-limits to any sort of external disruption. But this is no ordinary wetland. This wetland is the result of the local government's neglect and mismanagement.

The peninsula where Jim lives contains a series of drainage ditches, which when properly maintained, are essential to flood control on the low-lying peninsula. The ditches were originally constructed 80 years ago by the Civilian Conservation Corps to collect excess rainwater and carry it safely out to the surrounding ocean and bay. The Pacific County government now owns the easement for these ditches, and residents of Long Beach peninsula (including Jim) pay a "flood control" tax, ostensibly for maintenance of these channels. However, Pacific County neglects to care for the ditches, leaving them clogged and virtually inoperable. The result of this neglect is overly saturated farmland-which of course the Army Corps of Engineers considers a wetland.

In order to grow his mushrooms, Jim would have to construct a series of slightly raised beds using a gravel foundation. He would also create an irrigation reservoir that would drain to a constructed pond, thus creating a wonderful pool for ducks, geese and other wildlife. In detailing his intentions to Col. James M. Rigsby of the District Corps of Army Engineers, Jim explained thoroughly that his operation would not include the handling or use of any toxins whatsoever. In fact, his mushroom farm would be an environmental boon to the property, as mushrooms return vital nutrients to the soil and Jim's farm would maintain the proper specifications to be classified 100% organic.

The Corps came out to inspect Jim's operation and told him that a thorough environmental impact study would have to be conducted on his land. The study, of course, would be funded out of Jim's pocket to the tune of a few thousand dollars. Reluctantly, Jim agreed to the arrangement.

Jim then addressed the Pacific County Department of Public Works on its failure to properly control flooding on the peninsula. However, he was met with indignation, Jim said. The county refused to accept responsibility for maintaining the flood control ditches, despite the fact that county easement maps show quite clearly that the ditches are in their care, and despite the fact that residents continue to be charged a "flood control" tax for ditch maintenance.

He was subjected to repeated bullying by the Corps and the county government, Jim said, including a threatening letter from the Assistant Director of the Pacific County Department of Community Development, Mike DeSimone, who told Jim: "You will need to immediately cease all work in the wetlands and apply for review and permits. Failure to do so within the next 15 days will result in formal enforcement action against you and the contractor." Having already sought numerous permits and reviews only to be ignored by the District Corps of Army Engineers, Jim slowly began to give up the fight to farm mushrooms. When the Corps finally did take action on Jim's case, they told him that his farm would violate the rules governing wetlands because of the gravel foundation required for mushroom beds.

Jim was dejected but not content to merely live out his life on a large piece of property that the government was trying to render useless. After all, he had already sunk a sizeable amount of time, money and pain into the ordeal. Moreover, even though Jim's land is officially designated as agricultural property, Jim must pay a "best use" property
tax until he can show an income from crops produced on his land. This means that the failure to utilize his land for growing crops for profit would result in roughly a 60% increase in his property tax burden.

Ever resourceful, Jim decided that he would build a vineyard on his farmland instead. The Corps noted that although grapes too required raised beds for cultivation, that these raised structures were typically built with sand, and therefore, shouldn't be a problem. However, a new survey and process would be necessary before Jim could begin his new venture. Jim patiently waited for months and months, long past the date that the Corps should have returned with their ultimate finding. Finally, reaching the height of his frustration, Jim decided to forge ahead. He began to preliminarily work the property in preparation for his vineyard.

Shortly thereafter, the county and the Corps returned to Jim and demanded that he once again cease and desist or face further action. They explained to Jim, this time with more than a hint of finality, that his property was a valuable wetland, and therefore, is barred from agricultural use. At the beginning of this ordeal, the Corps told Jim that his property had been delineated as a very, very, low value wetland. When it became evident that Jim was persistent and willing to cooperate with whatever procedure the Corps deemed necessary for him to be able to farm his land, the Corps suddenly upgraded the status of his property to that of a "critical wetland."

Jim Starr said that he did not know what else he could do. He has given up trying to farm his land.

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