The update of Island County’s shoreline master program took a giant leap forward at a meeting in Coupeville late last month.
Following a public hearing, Dec. 27, the Island County Commissioners approved the plan in a split 2-1 vote.
The action largely brings to a close more than two years of work, public outreach and revision. All that’s left now is for the state Department of Ecology to sign off on the plan, and hold a public meeting of its own.
Commissioner Helen Price Johnson hailed the plan a success, praising county staff for their efforts in its development and the community for its ongoing input throughout the process.
“Really substantive changes have been made that I think reflect a good balance,” she said.
Commissioner Angie Homola, in what was her last formal action in office, voiced several concerns and emphasized the importance of clean water in Puget Sound but ultimately agreed to move forward.
Commissioner Kelly Emerson was the sole opposition on the board.
“It’s not close enough for me,” she said. “It’s just far too restrictive and drives the cost of businesses and residences up. There is just too much I can’t get close to on it.”
The document determines how existing and new development within 200 feet of the shoreline will be managed. State law requires the plan be updated every eight years with the latest advancements in science and best management practices.
While Emerson was the only commissioner to vote against the update’s adoption, the document has seen its share of criticism. Policies and regulations surrounding aqua culture and public beach access were among the hottest topics and remained so right to the end.
Ian Jefferds, owner of Penn Cove Shellfish, attended the public hearing and expressed concern that the rules were both unclear and too restrictive. One section made it uncertain whether aquaculture would be allowed in select areas along the east side of Whidbey Island unless a business could demonstrate that it would not have an adverse environmental impact.
Jefferds said he’s worked hard to improve the water quality in Penn Cove over the years and that he was “disheartened” to see such a rule proposed.
“To put a blanket condemnation on a business that’s been helpful in this county seems, well, it seems ridiculous,” he said.
The issue was debated heavily by the commissioners but, in the end, the board agreed to exempt existing operations — the rule would apply only to new operations.
The board was not so flexible when it came to public access, however, as the commissioners maintained an earlier revision that essentially made it optional for new waterfront communities of between five and nine homes to provide a public access to the beach.
Price Johnson said she’d heard from many constituents who questioned her reluctance in making it a requirement. She explained that she believed the time and expense of implementing such a rule would outweigh the public benefit — a road end might provide just a few feet of public access, for example.
It would be more advantageous, she said, to develop accesses to existing publicly owned shorelines and pursue new properties large enough to be truly useful.
“For the limited resources we have, I just see that as a higher priority,” Price Johnson said.
Homola disagreed, arguing that she believed “substantial access” could be gained. It was not such an obstacle, however, that she was willing to hamstring the program’s adoption.
Emerson was against such a requirement, claiming that providing public access on private property is not a “mandate” of the state.
Beach access advocates are hoping the Department of Ecology will feel otherwise when it begins its review of the county’s adopted plan this year.
Mike McVay, founder of Island Citizens For Public Beach Access, said he hopes the state will put the teeth back into the regulations by removing softened language, which was added later.
He said he was “disappointed” the board did not go further to protect the public’s right to access the waterfront.
“This battle for beach access isn’t new and it isn’t going to go away,” McVay said.
Now that the program has been adopted by the board, the county must submit the rules to the Department of Ecology where agency officials will review the plan in detail.
The department will offer a 30-day public comment period and hold at least one public meeting in Island County before making a final decision.