The Voluntary Stewardship Program (VSP) is an alternative approach for counties to protect critical areas in areas with agricultural activities. Instead of enacting further critical areas regulation on agricultural lands, the VSP allows the county to take a voluntary, incentive-based approach. In collaboration with the conservation district, the VSP works closely with agricultural operators to develop site-specific, individual stewardship plans for the implementation of conservation practices that are designed to protect and enhance critical areas while also improving agricultural operations.
The county has been working with stakeholders to maintain a watershed-based planning group that oversees implementation, adaptive management and monitoring of the VSP. This group includes a broad representation of key stakeholders and representatives of agricultural and environmental groups, as well as tribes that have agreed to participate.
One of the benefits of the VSP planning process is that it's a local, grassroots planning effort. It also integrates programs that may already exist in the county, such as the Open Space Tax Program, Transfer and Purchase of Development Rights, and Agritourism.
The mission of the VSP is to create a voluntary stewardship program that balances the protection and enhancement of critical areas with maintaining and improving the long-term viability of agriculture.
The 5 critical areas are:
Fish and Wildlife Habitat Conservation Areas
Critical Aquifer Recharge Areas
Frequently Flooded Areas
Geologic Hazard Areas
History of the VSP
In 2006, Initiative 933 addressed regulatory taking of agricultural lands due to development regulations. It failed by 60 percent. The following year, the state Legislature commissioned the Ruckelshaus Center, a non-profit think tank based in Seattle, to examine the conflict between preserving agricultural lands and protecting critical areas in local ordinances adopted under the GMA. The process brought together stakeholders on this issue for discussion and development of a recommendation to the Legislature. A moratorium was placed on the requirement for local governments to update their critical area ordinances as they specifically applied to agricultural activities. The Voluntary Stewardship Program is the result of the hard work undertaken by the Ruckelshaus Center. In the spring of 2007, the state legislature adopted Substitute Senate Bill 5248 which included the following provisions:
- Required the Ruckelshaus Center to look into the conflicts between critical areas regulations and agricultural uses. The Ruckelshaus Center was tasked to conduct a fact finding mission, bring together stakeholders on this issue for discussion of the issues, and develop a recommendation to the legislature.
- Enacted a moratorium on new critical areas regulations on agricultural uses defined in the bill between May 1, 2007 and June 30, 2010. In 2010, the moratorium was extended until June 30, 2011 so the work could be completed.
In the spring of 2011, the state legislature enacted Engrossed Substitute House Bill (ESHB) 1886 which enacted the recommendations of the Ruckelshaus process. This bill amended the Growth Management Act (RCW 36.70A) to allow options for protecting critical areas:
- Permits the County to use a voluntary stewardship program in conjunction with stakeholders in lieu of enacting further critical areas regulations in regards to agricultural uses. At the state level, the voluntary stewardship program is to be administered by the Washington Conservation Commission.
- Continue under existing law and update critical areas regulations for agricultural uses by July 22, 2013.
- Limit the voluntary stewardship program to certain watersheds in the county, and update the critical areas regulations for other watersheds.