Packinghouses where farm animals are slaughtered and the meat is processed for sale are legal on farmland in Whatcom County, after the County Council voted 4-3 on Tuesday, Sept. 10, to allow them.
The new rules allow slaughterhouses less than 7,000 square feet with no more than a building permit, state permits for waste handling and discharge, and rights to the water they will use.
Slaughterhouses up to 20,000 square feet are allowed after a public hearing and a review by the county hearing examiner, who acts as a judge over land-use decisions.
To prevent feed lots, where animals bound for slaughter are kept for extended periods, holding pens can be large enough to store animals for only 24 hours.
Animals slaughtered will be mostly local; at least 75 percent must be from Whatcom, Skagit or Island County.
Land zoned strictly for farmland is meant to preserve "prime agricultural soils," so these buildings should take up as little good soil as possible, the code says.
Council members Ken Mann and Carl Weimer, who voted against the ordinance, wanted all slaughterhouses to go before the hearing examiner, so they could be closely scrutinized individually.
Council member Barbara Brenner, who also voted "no," unsuccessfully proposed changes that would keep slaughterhouses out of areas that are highly flood-prone or have critical habitat.
County attorney Karen Frakes warned the council that Brenner's proposed changes would require another public hearing before council could vote.
Council member Bill Knutzen was intent on passing the ordinance. Tuesday night's hearing was the fourth on the slaughterhouse rules, going back to September 2012.
"We beat this horse to death. I mean, it's time to get going," Knutzen said.
The debate during the public hearing devolved into a caricature of itself at times, appearing as a face-off between city-dwelling vegetarians and farmers who regard government regulators as flies to be swatted away.
The beef and dairy farmers who spoke said they needed another way to make money if agriculture in the county was to remain viable. Ben Elenbaas, a farmer and a candidate for the County Council, said he was shocked to see some of his customers testify against slaughterhouses - a service his business is "highly reliant" on.
"Berry and dairy are king in this county because the infrastructure is here, and that infrastructure is in the (agricultural) zone," Elenbaas said.
Those who opposed slaughterhouses on farmland, or at least called for further study, said not enough was known about the potential for water pollution or the pressure on local water supplies. They also said allowing slaughterhouses on farmland might do more harm to agriculture by taking away prime soils.
"It's really important we protect these soils for the production of food," said Kate Blystone, Whatcom chapter director of Futurewise.
Just before the vote, council chairwoman Kathy Kershner read the parts of the code intended to protect water quality.
"What we have here seems to be a compromise, with trying to ensure public safety, trying to allow packinghouses and trying to add some value-added product to our farming community," Kershner said. "I think that it's been a long time coming."