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County readies new wetlands ordinance

As Island County prepares to finalize its new wetlands ordinance, planning staff are working feverishly to help the public make sense out of information that for many can be about as clear as mud.

Residents recently received a second mailing laying out the draft ordinance, which explains the daunting process the county underwent to revamp an ordinance that was established in 1984. Wetland regulations are part of the county’s Critical Areas Ordinance, a document that must be updated periodically.

“We were the first county to do that way back in 1984,” said Phil Bakke, Island County Planning and Community Development director. “What we have now is a complex ordinance. It’s like taking Windows and updating to Vista. It’s more complicated and more intuitive.”

The county in the past has been using a “one-size-fits-all” approach to dealing with wetlands, including imposing a blanket 100-foot buffer.

“It is complicated and we willingly undertook this process because we want to be specific and attuned to regulations,” Bakke said. “We need to tailor the regulations and management techniques for specific land use.”

The new system, developed by wetland biologist Paul Adamus during a lengthy study of county wetlands, breaks down wetlands into four categories, setting up 20 to 300-foot buffers depending on the category, the sensitivity of the wetland and the function it provides.

Public outreach and empowering the community with knowledge is the ultimate goal of the planning department. A new identification guide that can be used by the average landowner will be disseminated in hard copies and available on the county’s Web site. The guide provides a comprehensive crash-course in determining what category of wetland each property owner is dealing with.

A series of workshops will be held throughout the county to augment the extensive bank of information available on the Web site. The complete listing of the workshop schedule is included in the recent mailer.

Watershed Planner Jan Smith said the workshops have been planned to accommodate citizens’ invariably busy schedules.

“You don’t have to live in the area where the workshop is held,” she said. “And if you show up late, that’s okay. The whole idea here is to help people help themselves.”

Bakke said the sheer enormity of the wetlands ordinance process has been remarkable for a small county.

“Adamus is one of the leaders in his field,” the director said. “We’ve worked with state agencies. The staff has really taken on the role of the citizens. And we have three very impressive peer groups that will descend and work on the ordinance.”

Bakke said his department’s plan, although it created an excruciating workload for everyone involved, was to give the public a complete package that adequately broke down the draft ordinance.

“The community members expect it,” he said. “It a very informed community.”

The risk implicit with working closely with the public is that the draft may be altered as a result of new input submitted, essentially opening Pandora’s Box. Bakke is undeterred and emphasized that the people of Island County need to play a crucial role in the process to allow them to ask informed questions when public hearings are held in the future.

“Some people will say it’s too much and some will say it’s not enough,” Bakke said.

With the studies conducted by Adamus, the three phases will be used continuously in the future and tweaked appropriately to avoid having to completely take on the process again in 2013 when a new modification to the Critical Areas Ordinance is required.

“It’s a lot of work, but the prize is not having to rewrite it in 2013,” he said.

In a nutshell, the ordinance will be far more complex and specify site-specific regulations for wetlands. But that is the tradeoff between having a simple but inflexible ordinance and one that offers options and alternatives for landowners.

Steve Erickson from the Whidbey Environmental Action Network said all he has seen is the mailer and that it is too early to say if an appeal is coming.

“We haven’t even seen the ordinance language yet,” he said. “All we have is this mailer. I would be delighted if Island County decides to protect wetlands, but we don’t know if that’s the case yet.”

Bakke said his confidence in the “scientifically superior” project is unwavering.

“If WEAN wants to appeal, they can bring it on, on that basis,” he said. “If it’s about scientific validity, go ahead and appeal. This is extremely scientifically defendable.”

For more information about the draft wetlands ordinance, visit the Web site at www.islandcounty.net/planning/index.htm

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