Rate your own wetlands

The final round of Island County Planning Commission public hearings on the proposed wetlands ordinance, which has not been updated since 1984, will be held in the coming weeks, providing residents the opportunity to again sound off on the new draft ordinance.

Residents will also find out exactly what the planning department has been up to since its last offering of workshops.

A third mailer designed to edify the lay person and keep them abreast of any draft ordinance changes will be arriving in county mailboxes this week.

“This tells people what we’ve been doing since the hearings in May,” said Planning Director Jeff Tate. “It let’s them know what’s changed.”

The workshops held over the summer generated reams of public comment. Tate and his staff synthesized the input and made changes to the previous draft ordinance.

“It is in principle very similar to the draft people already have, but we’ve made adjustments based on what they said,” the planning director said.

The new draft ordinance will be available starting tomorrow at Hardcopies will be available at the planning department and upcoming county planning commission public hearings.

After three November informal workshops and pubic hearings, the planning commission will deliberate in December and ultimately decide whether to recommend to the Island County Commissioners that they pass the ordinance.

Tate said the changes in the new draft are not substantive and therefore difficult to highlight specifically. However, a few themes emerged from public comment and were included in the modifications.

“It became clear to us in May and June that we hadn’t adequately communicated the difference between agricultural and environmental issues,” Tate said.

A county-developed agriculture program was adopted in May 2006 and is currently being appealed. The wetlands ordinance is separate from the agriculture ordinance and deals primarily with construction and development.

“To make it clear we made two separate ordinances,” Tate said.

An identification guide that can be used by the average landowner was sent out in May, providing a comprehensive crash-course in determining the category of wetland. Tate said the new one that will be mailed is even more user-friendly. Deviating from the Department of Ecology’s wetlands classification system that assigns grades of one to four, a number that must be ascertained by a hired biologist, Tate said the process was simplified.

“We wanted to be able to say, rather than hire a biologist, take this guide and use it,” he said. “We will double-check later on, but we want people to be able to rate their property themselves. And we want to use words, not numbers.”

Planning staff embedded flexibility and options in the draft ordinance.

“People in Island County have a great knowledge and understanding of environmental issues,” Tate said. “The landowner needs to be involved with what is happening on their property. We want to work with them.”

Adding more pliancy to the ordinance, property owners have the option of participating 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.

“This recognizes that there are other things you can do on your property,” Tate said. “You start working on a management plan for your own property. It provides options. We’re recognizing that Island County is not ‘one size fits all.’”

The new draft 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.

“It’s a sliding scale that depends on how much you do,” Tate said.

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