Editorial: Watch over our wetlands

The Island County Commissioners are proud of the wetlands ordinance update they will soon approve, and time may show that they have a right to be.

The ordinance is extremely complex, but it’s based on the admirable belief that people have the right to develop their property. Wetlands are protected not by fixed setbacks, but by a “scientific approach” that allows landowners leeway to pursue projects as long as they mitigate any impact to the wetlands. The ordinance laudably draws landowners into the wetlands protection process, teaching them to recognize wetlands and how to protect them.

It brings to mind a rather idealized scene in which Farmer Brown decides to build a barn near a wetland. He consults with county staff as to the building site and situates the barn as appropriately as possible to minimize damage to the wetland. If the wetland is partially damaged, Farmer Brown may have to use his backhoe to enlarge the wetland area and plant it with suitable wetland species. The end result is that Farmer Brown has his barn and the wetland area has been protected and even enhanced.

We all love Farmer Brown, so few people have any problem with that scenario. The trouble comes when Farmer Brown sells his property to an outside developer intent on maximizing his profit. The developer will have to “implement the mitigation sequence,” but exactly how much mitigation will be allowed? Will it be possible to mitigate a wetland out of existence, and create a wetland somewhere else to compensate for the loss? It appears so, if the right to develop property is the predominant consideration in the process.

Further down the road, the county admits it may consider letting developers pay money to mitigate wetland damage. The county would use the money on some other wetland project, presumably while houses are built on a former wetland. This does not seem like an idea most Island County residents would support, but it’s on the county’s “to do” list. After the proper public process, of course.

No doubt there are groups out there ready to sue over the proposed wetlands update. But most islanders will just have to wait and see if the wetlands ordinance really protects wetlands, or if it’s just a another way to promote development. The answer really rests with the commissioners and county staff, and how they implement the ordinance. As always, the public is charged with eternal vigilance to make sure the government is doing its bidding and not that of the developers.

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