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Sound Off: Wetlands update fair and balanced
By John Dean, Mac McDowell & Phil Bakke
The Board of Island County Commissioners Monday accepted the countys Critical Area Ordinance wetlands update, as recommended by the Island County Planning Commission, and set a 2:30 p.m., Jan. 28, public hearing to specifically consider four additional amendments to further fine-tune the ordinance.
The board is pleased with and proud of the balanced, scientific work presented to us Monday after extensive public outreach. But commissioners are not the only ones. The state regulatory departments of Community, Trade and Economic Development, Ecology, and Fish & Wildlife are pleased, too.
Those three state agencies last week recognized in writing Island Countys considerable efforts to develop a science-based approach to protecting wetlands that is specific to Island County.
State agencies, for example, consider the countys Profile of Characteristics, Function and Health, together with the Best Available Science Review of Published Literature, as among the highest quality work prepared so far in response to the GMA requirements to use the best available science in developing regulations to designate and protect critical areas.
And, in case there is any doubt in anyones mind, state reviewers predict Island Countys new approach to managing wetlands should be effective at protecting wetland functions from adverse effects of development.
They said they especially like the clear policies in the countys comprehensive plan and development regulation review process to implement the mitigation sequence of avoidance, reduction, restoration, and compensation.
They like the countys regulatory regime that explicitly takes into consideration the intensity of the land use, topography, soils, and other characteristics when determining protective techniques such as buffers, while giving property owners incentives to retain vegetation.
The county planning department also got high marks for its rural stewardship program and other methods such as the Wetlands Identification Guide that involve landowners in learning about and protecting wetlands, and establishment of an excellent compliance monitoring program.
The state agencies found one fault with the ordinance, a possible loophole for partially draining a wetland, and the Board of Island County Commissioners has proposed an amendment to delete that one fault as one of four amendments scheduled to be considered January 28.
There are, however, still some lingering public fears about the ordinance. Some islanders, for example, mistakenly believe it allows property owners to make the call about whether or not they own a wetland. Others question the idea of allowing property owners buy-outs in lieu of strict compliance.
Regarding the first concern, Island County hopes to engage property owners in recognizing wetlands through field guides and community training, but the final call will be up to county planners.
And, when it comes to possible fees to pay for wetland mitigation in lieu of compliance, the new ordinance only makes this safety valve a possibility as a last resort. It doesnt exist as part of the ordinance accepted this week. The ordinance only authorizes the county to consider it later. Even so, any proposed program such as this would go through the same public process as the wetland regulations themselves. And, if such a program is adopted in the future, it would be used only very rarely as a last resort to raise funds for wetland mitigation nearby, certainly not as an opportunity for someone to buy a license to harm a wetland.
While no effort as challenging as island environmental protection will ever be perfect, we believe this new ordinance, with the amendments we will consider January 28, will provide an appropriate balance of scientific wetlands protection and attention to peoples need to live and prosper here. If, for some reason, the ordinance turns out to not provide that middle-of-the-road balance, we are committed to revising it until it does.
We share everyones concern about sustaining and protecting our water supplies and protecting our wetlands. The countys goal has truly been to protect wetlands while still allowing people and wildlife the flexibility to live nearby.
We feel Island County planners, planning commissioners, land use consultants, state reviewers, and peer review scientists from around the country have walked that difficult tightrope well, and we thank them all for their efforts.
Board of Island County Commissioners: John Dean, chairman; Mac McDowell, Phil Bakke.