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Wetlands rules finally adopted

A three-year process that prompted more than 40 newspaper articles, five radio broadcasts, two countywide mailings, presentations to 16 community groups and nine workshops, culminated last week in Coupeville with the County Commissioners’ approval of the new wetlands ordinance.

The revised critical areas ordinance updates the county’s 23-year-old wetland protections against future development of property affected by wetlands. The initial draft received myriad amendments from its infancy in the hands of the Island County Planning Commission, to its adulthood spent in the company of the commissioners. Some changes were made as a result of community feedback, and others direct recommendations from state agencies.

The new CAO, which goes into effect July 1, employs a highly-adaptable, site-specific approach, in stark contrast to other state jurisdictions that use a “one-size-fits-all” strategy.

For a property affected by wetlands or a wetland buffer, the type and function of the critical areas are considered along with the intensity of the proposed land use.

The county uses a property’s particular conditions when determining buffer size, or “wetland setback.” A buffer is a vegetated strip around a wetland that filters surface water and contaminants and provides habitat for many species that cannot flourish in other environments.

Under the revised ordinance, some buffers will be larger than current regulations require, while others will be smaller, and some will remain the same. A buffer’s size is based on whether it provides high quality habitat value or water quality protection.

Dr. Paul Adamus, a wetlands

biologist, and county planning staff conducted the fieldwork in 2005. The 12-month first phase, coupled with exhaustive research, yielded a report describing the wetlands and their general health. Utilizing the data, the proposed CAO was drafted. Over the spring and summer, numerous public workshops were conducted to solicit comments and questions. State agencies reviewed the draft, as did peers in the scientific and professional fields, and county commissioners have been reviewing the updated CAO since January.

“We believe this new ordinance will provide an appropriate balance of scientific wetlands protection and attention to people’s need to live and prosper here,” said Board Chairman John Dean.

Adamus categorized wetlands using the state Department of Ecology’s system and evaluated the health of wetlands according to his professional opinion, which he formulated using his own system.

The biologist used an esoteric, statistical correlation process to determine how closely the state’s set of “scores” tracked the modified county method. He boiled down the results for the commissioners and said the outcome for both methods, which overlap in some areas, are comparable.

The commissioners were satisfied last week with the final four amendments, one of which dealt with clearing thresholds. Planning staff initially drafted the changes to address concerns issued in letters sent by Whidbey Environmental Action Network, South Whidbey resident Jeanne Hunsinger and the state Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development.

The remaining three amendments included language that prohibits the creation of new lots around wetlands, considers continued agricultural activity on properties that have historically used the land for that purpose, and laid out “findings of fact” with revised verbiage.

A Rural Stewardship Plan embedded in the new ordinance provides monetary incentives for owners with parcels one acre or greater who learn and practice conservation strategies for long-term development goals or property tax benefits.

Steve Erickson of the Whidbey Environmental Action Network, one of two audience members present last week, said reducing land use intensity with the rural stewardship option is not enough. He further said an amendment needs to provide limits on impervious surfaces and address non-residential developments.

The stewardship plans also accord landowners with “head of the line,” expedited permit review. Plan requirements will be officially recorded by the county on the property title or deed.

The type and size of wetlands protected under the new CAO have also changed. A fifth category has been added and they will now be categorized A through E based on their relative significance. The size threshold has also changed; some wetlands as small as 1,000 square feet will now be regulated, up from the previous quarter-acre minimum.

Erickson said he was “disappointed” in the commissioners’ treatment of the agricultural issue. He added that the only reason they removed the original wording was because it is “patently illegal.”

Regarding the findings of fact, Erickson bemoaned ordinance wording that he said did not classify anything as reasonable use, leaving the issue open to interpretation. He recommended the document state specifically that projects can be denied.

“Protecting property rights does not mean that anything goes,” he said.

Planning Director Jeff Tate and Keith Dearborn, the longtime county-contracted attorney, both disagreed with Erickson’s assertion.

“There may be circumstances when a project is denied,” Dearborn said. “I expect that will be very rare.”

Phil Bakke, who was appointed commissioner last September, initiated the CAO update while serving in his former capacity as planning director. He said regardless of their respective political bent, all residents share a desire to retain the county’s rural character.

“This protects the environment and land rights, and gives property owners options,” he said.

All three commissioners profusely supported the ordinance, praising the work of county planners and the wetlands biologist. Dean said he began his county tenure with a degree of cynicism. Observing the wetlands ordinance process turned him into “a believer in the planning department.”

Commissioner Mac McDowell underscored the state agencies’ support of the county’s program.

“It’s been a fine balancing act,” he said in a press release. “We feel Island County planners, planning commissioners, consultants, state reviewers and peer review scientists from around the country - and most importantly, the citizens from our two islands – have walked that tightrope well, and we thank them all for their efforts.”

The board’s approval was punctuated by Bakke’s quick and emphatic “Ay.”

The Planning department’s Web site contains a CAO primer with downloadable guidebooks at www.islandcounty.net/planning. The site will be constantly updated until July to include final amendments.

For more information, residents may also stop by the planning offices in Coupeville. Planning can be contacted by phone at 679-7339.

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