October 30, 2012

Fighting to protect Washington's small family farms

By Brian T. Hodges Senior Attorney

Yesterday, PLF attorneys filed an amicus brief in support of Washington’s small family farms in the case, Whidbey Environmental Action Network v. Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board.  At issue is an Island County ordinance allowing small rural farms to implement the same environmentally friendly practices that large commercial farms enjoy. Those practices—referred to as “adaptive management” techniques—provide farmers with the necessary flexibility to make use of land that would otherwise be deemed off-limits due to its proximity to an environmentally sensitive area.  Allowing small farmers to implement those practices is vital to the ongoing viability of the region’s rural farms.

It certainly seems odd that an environmentalist organization would fight to block farmers from using environmentally friendly farming practices.  But the environmentalists are using this case to push a much more radical agenda.  The organization wants the court to adopt a radical version of the precautionary principle that would prohibit small farmers—and all other property owners—from making any use of their land unless and until science can conclusively establish that there is no risk of any impact the environment.  (PLF attorneys recently published a law review article refuting that argument).

The environmentalists’ arguments should find no foothold in Washington courts.  As established in a 2007 PLF case, Swinomish Indian Tribal Community v. W. Wash. Growth Mgmt. Hearings Bd., Washington law does not elevate the environment above all other interests—particularly the State’s interest in protecting agricultural lands.  Indeed, the law directs local governments to adopt regulations specifically designed to assure the continued use of productive agricultural lands.  Adaptive management programs attempt to strike a balance between property rights and the environment.

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