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Wetlands ordinance closer to adoption

The county’s proposed wetlands ordinance entered a new phase last week when the Island County Planning Commission voted to forward the amended document to the county commissioners with a recommendation to adopt.

The planning commission deliberated two days last week, poring over an ordinance — unchanged since 1984 — that had shifted shape as a result of considerable public input. The comment period closed Nov. 30.

“The staff filtered down the main themes,” said Planning Director Jeff Tate, who has grown accustomed to living and breathing wetlands. “The planning commission was given all of the comment letters.”

Commission members were provided with a multiple-page document in which planning staff highlighted the most substantive issues.

“We brought to them 18 recommended changes based on the comments we received,” Tate said. “Some were miniscule, like the difference between protecting trees 18 inches or 15 inches in diameter. Some were bigger. The planning commissioners tweaked them a little bit and put on their own fingerprint.”

Steve Erickson of the Whidbey Environmental Action Network was taken aback by the amount of time the public would reportedly be given to review the amended document before the county commissioners deliberate.

“The final version will be available on January 2nd and the commissioners might adopt it on the 7th,” the WEAN spokesman said. “Five days to review and comment on a fat pile of convoluted legalese is just a bit short.”

Tate responds that the core of the ordinance has remained static throughout the process. Items that were modified existed on the periphery, primarily to clarify the intent of the ordinance and to improve its readability.

“The core is rooted in the science,” he said. “We don’t have the option to change that. At least 95 percent of the words are the same as they have been.

“You have a public comment period, you have hearings, and then you give the planning commission time to respond to that. The documents have been available for six months. Each new draft has been the same strategy for protecting wetlands.”

Adoption could happen Jan. 7

Planning staff said the timeline is tentative, but the commissioners are aiming for a Jan. 7 meeting. When the board convenes, it will have the option under state law to immediately accept the planning commission’s recommendation. The commissioners may also opt to scrutinize the document further and solicit additional input during a public meeting.

“The board can’t change the recommendation without holding a public hearing,” Tate said.

Setting a process to determine wetland buffers was no easy — or short — task.

“All wetlands are protected, the question is to what degree,” Tate said. “How do you determine a buffer?”

The planning director said two factors are used in setting a buffer: Identifying the type of wetland and determining the level of development intensity.

“More intense development has a bigger buffer because the potential risk to wetlands is greater,” Tate said. “A low intensity development near a non-sensitive wetland can tolerate a smaller buffer. One size does not fit all.”

Estuaries, for example, are less sensitive than other wetlands like bogs or forested wetlands.

Erickson complained that, as he sees it, “No conceivable development can ever be denied because of wetland damage.” The ordinance allows wetlands to be degraded, he added, assuming the damage can always be mitigated.

“Experience everywhere else shows that most mitigation is not successful,” Erickson said. “And even if the county admits the damage can’t be mitigated, developers can just pay some money to the county and call it square.”

Reasonable use

of land allowed

The ordinance was designed to guarantee landowners reasonable use of their property,” Tate said.

“If a piece of property was created and subdivided long before there were wetland regulations, we’re going to figure out ways to allow them to use their property,” Tate said. “The planning commission and board do not think it’s reasonable to tell someone they can’t use their property. With that said, there are limitations. If you have property outside the buffer, you have to build there. Someone planning to build a 9,000-square-foot home may need to look at a more modest-sized house.”

Mitigation is possible by enhancing the area in other locations through the restoration of onsite or offsite degraded wetlands. Restoration priorities are designed to have a greater benefit on the new area. Although the mitigation would ideally take place somewhere else on the property, it can be performed on adjacent land or in the same watershed. If all avenues are exhausted, at the request of the state, the ordinance allows the county to develop a program whereby a fee is collected in lieu of mitigation.

“If there’s no other alternative, none at all that exists, we will be able to do that in the future,” Tate said. “You could take the impact on the piece of property and quantify it in a cost. The county would have to accept the fee to be used solely for mitigation. This program is not in place yet.”

Intensity was carefully defined by three factors back in October during the planning department’s workshop road show that took them all over Island County to help educate the public. The size of the parcel, the type of property, residential or commercial; and how much clearing is proposed on the property were all agreed on at the time as the primary factors.

The planning commission added a fourth factor.

“They decided that it now also depends on how much impervious surface you have on your property,” Tate said.

Erickson said the ordinance includes “dozens of possible buffers,” an unappealing component that he feels will only create confusion.

“It is so complicated and has so many loopholes that even developers are going to be scratching their heads as to what they can and can’t do,” he said.

For property owners to maintain a low intensity, Tate said buildings must be set back to the edge of the buffer.

“You can have a lawn in there, but you can’t build within the setback,” he explained.

The county will not dictate how much property owners can clear on their land, although there are incentives for clearing less. The WEAN spokesman was uncomfortable with an ordinance devoid of clearing limits.

“There are no limits on clearing, but the science is clear that wetlands and streams get trashed if there is extensive deforestation,” Erickson said. “Protecting wetlands and streams means protecting their watersheds. If most of the watershed is cleared, buffers right around the wetland don’t do a whole lot.”

Learning to manage cats, dogs

Property owners do have the option to participate in the Rural Stewardship Plan, which is essentially a contract between the county and landowner that establishes a more site-specific regulation on the property.

The new draft that has been forwarded to the county commissioners does not change any of the buffer regulations. It does, however, include information about the Public Benefit Rating System, a program that provides tax breaks for property owners who perform work on their property.

The issue of pets within the context of the elective stewardship plan made its way into the planning commission meeting. The county code stipulates that domesticated animals must be controlled in order for a property to be classified as low intensity.

“That’s possible with a dog, but how do you do that with a cat? We spoke with Fish and Wildlife and Ecology and they said we have the responsibility to tell someone it is a law to control their pet,” Tate said.

As a solution, the planning commission decided that people participating in the stewardship plan must formulate a pet management plan in order to qualify for the tax breaks.

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