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Large crowd of county residents voices displeasure with upland habitat plan

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A standing-room only crowd at the Yakima Convention Center hears testimony from Yakima County Farm Bureau President Gene Jenkins opposing a habitat plan that could impact development in the Rattlesnake Hills.

YAKIMA - After more than three hours of testimony last night, Yakima County commissioners got the message that residents are up in arms about a wildlife habitat proposal.

Land owners were literally up in arms Tuesday night, as many of the 200 or so in attendance at the Yakima Convention Center wore bright orange and pink armbands to show their opposition to the habitat plan.

Known as upland wildlife habitat conservation areas, the county is proposing to have land in the hills and ridges, the shrub steppe, above the valley floor designated as habitat for certain species, such as pygmy rabbits.

As required by the state, county commissioners two years ago developed what they felt were suitable areas to set aside for habitat conservation.

Several groups - ranging from the Audubon Society to the Yakama Nation - felt commissioners did not go far enough. The result of mediation between the county and its opponents is the wildlife habitat proposal debated last night.

Under the proposal, those with property in a habitat area would first need to find out if there is any mitigation needed for wildlife habitat before starting a construction project on their land.

"Private property does not belong to the Department of Fish and Wildlife," commissioners heard from Gene Jenkins, president of the Yakima County Farm Bureau.

Jenkins contended that property owners could be faced with costs in the tens of thousands of dollars to develop their land if it's found important for habitat.

"This would punish property owners," Jenkins added, claiming the proposal is the "largest taking" of private property in state history.

Since about 80 percent of land in Yakima County is public property, many of the 40 or so comments last night called for the proposal to leave out privately held lands.

Most of those who testified were from the Wenas and Naches areas with lands in the proposed upland habitat.

A Toppenish Livestock representative, Angelo Menning, drew applause when his comments reflected two of the more urgent concerns claimed by habitat opponents: the potential inability to rebuild after a fire and possible restrictions on land use if a property is unused for a period of five years.

Menning said the livestock company has land holdings in the Rattlesnake Hills, one of the areas singled out in the habitat proposal.

Other concerns from the parade of testimony last night included vagueness in the language of the proposal and a map that does not offer specific boundaries for the habitat areas.

One of only two people commenting in favor of the plan - the other was a representative from the Audubon Society - was Perry Harvester with the state's department of fish and wildlife. While admitting the upland plan could be expanded in the future to accommodate more species of animals, Harvester said the plan does the "minimum" needed to address habitat needs while also recognizing the needs of property owners.

Harvester says it's a good thing that the plan is not too specific because it gives flexibility for landowners.

If county planners deem there are no habitat concerns on an upland property, for example, Harvester said the land owner could proceed with development without further review.

A thumbs up for the upland habitat proposal, however, was the minority view last night.

That didn't surprise County Commissioner Rand Elliott, who represents an area that includes the Lower Valley.

"I'm not surprised by the comments," Elliott said of conversations he's had with landowners. "I am surprised by the number of people here."

Elliott said the county will hold study sessions in the near future to consider last night's comments. He also said written testimony will be accepted on the habitat proposal for another two weeks.

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