April 04, 2011 Print

Proposed Thurston County ordinance is planned failure

BY: SCOTT ROBERTS Thurston County farmers, facing a looming regulatory threat to their property rights and economic freedom, are pushing back. This threat – which underscores 10 of the scariest words in the English language, “We’re from the government and we’re here to help you” – is a proposed county ordinance that would put some farmers out of business if adopted as drafted. Or more accurately, as copied from a Mariposa County, Calif., (rather than written, as a council staff member claimed before his boss let this fact slip out) with local restrictions added to make matters even worse. “Everything’s wrong with it,” says Debbie Lattin of Lattin’s Cider Mill. “All their proposals would put us out of business if applied to our business” – which is agricultural tourism. Agri-tourism – ventures that bring paying customers to working farms and ranches – is making some family farms profitable again in a challenging agricultural economy. It includes farm stands that sell fresh produce and homemade ciders, jams, jellies and baked goods, U-pick opportunities, pumpkin patches, and Christmas tree farms. Introduced by Thurston County Commissioner Sandra Romero, the declared purpose of this ordinance “is to preserve and support the agricultural industry of Thurston County as a viable economic activity and to preserve remaining agricultural lands and to discourage conversion to other incompatible uses.” But it would do just the opposite. Its most absurd provision, one that undermines fundamental free market principles, would limit “daily use activity … to no more than an average of 20 persons per day with a maximum of 105 per week,” or to 39 persons a day with a weekly limit of 250 for larger farms. In other words, Commissioner Romero – with no apparent understanding of business in general or farming in particular – would make Thurston County agri-tourism unprofitable by imposing an irresponsible regulation that caps the number of customers allowed. Just one pumpkin patch attracts that many visitors an hour on October afternoons. Clearly this proposal is the complete opposite of any common-sense plan to support farming and preserve farmland in Thurston County. Good grief! Although limits on visitors exempt employees, another proposed infringement on the freedom of farmers to operate their businesses profitably would cap the number of agri-tourism employees allowed on a farm at one time. These farmers are to be excused if they see in the current draft ordinance – described by Michael Cade, Executive Director of the Thurston County Economic Development Council, as “progressive” – shades of the centralized agricultural planning that doomed farms to failure in the old Soviet Union. Responding to objections to her proposal that were voiced at a March 21 agri-tourism meeting, Commissioner Romero displayed an all-too-familiar, government-knows-best arrogance, telling participants that they didn’t understand the ordinance because they didn’t have the full context. After all, they had dared to observe that, as Carolyn Lattin said, “somebody’s writing an ordinance that hasn’t any idea about a farm,” with wording so restrictive it will result in “limiting business altogether.” Commissioner Romero insisted “there aren’t that many ordinances” regulating agri-tourism – obviously overlooking Snohomish County, only 70 miles away, that successfully promotes agri-tourism – with a lot more freedom for farmers there. When Farm Bureau members around the state were shown the draft, they first thought it was a joke. After being told it was no laughing matter, their collective response was that it’s “the best way to destroy agri-tourism.” Many Thurston County farmers believe no agri-tourism ordinance is needed. “What we’ve done so far has seemed to work,” says one. Although some have had problems with matters such as obtaining permits, nothing justifies a “do-something” proposal that would harm everyone. The Farm Bureau, with its wealth of experience at writing workable agricultural ordinances, should be asked to draft a replacement – rather than leaving the job to desk jockeys who don’t know which side to mount a horse. Commission members also need input from and the perspectives of farmers who care about both their land and making a profit, not from city slickers with murky motives. Meanwhile, Commissioner Romero has yet to explain to the public – and to respond to a Freedom Foundation inquiry – why she thinks her co-opted draft ordinance is in the best interests of Thurston County agriculture, the farmers it will actually harm, and the local economy. This ordinance will be discussed again at the agri-tourism meeting on April 18, 4-5 p.m., on the second floor in Thurston County Courthouse Building 1, 2000 Lakeridge Dr. SW, Olympia. If a second draft is ready for review by then, it will be interesting to note whether concerns of local agri-tourism farmers have been heard and addressed affirmatively. No public hearings on the ordinance are yet scheduled. President Reagan famously observed, “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” With this lesson apparently lost on them thus far, Thurston County commissioners stand on the brink of taking government as the problem to a new level. [see related posts]


Scott Roberts

Citizen Action Network Director

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