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Comp Plan fixes could lead to court

"It hasn’t come easy, but during the last few months the Island County Commissioners appear to have patched up most of the problems in the county’s 20-year Comprehensive Plan. Unfortunately, a handful of stubborn issues still remain, and they may prove too difficult to fix outside a courtroom.Generally speaking, the changes the commissioners made will mean less land open for development; more acreage designated as long-term commercial farmland; increased protection of local plants and wildlife; more restrictions on new shoreline construction and more city control over development in areas just outside their city limits.Still unresolved are issues concerning the size of buffer zones along seasonal streams; further downzoning of large rural parcels; and whether small, rural farms should get a few exemptions from tough environmental laws.The commissioners were working toward an end-of-November deadline set by the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board. In June, the board ruled that portions of the county’s plan violated the state’s 1990 Growth Management Act by permitting too much sprawling development, while not adequately protecting the environment. The board’s action stemmed from legal appeals filed against the county last December by the Citizens Growth Management Coalition and the Whidbey Environmental Action Network.The Comprehensive Plan, along with its accompanying zoning codes and development regulations, is the county’s blueprint for dealing with more than 43,000 additional residents expected here by the year 2020. Under the Growth Management Act, all fast-growing counties in the state are required to produce such plans. The growth board oversees compliance with the act.Since the board’s June order, the commissioners, county planners and consultants have been forced to make changes to satisfy the board and avoid further fights with WEAN and the Coalition. In some cases that’s meant forming new advisory committees, reviewing volumes of new amendments and meeting face-to-face with the opposing parties to hash out a compromise. It’s also meant spending an additional $447,000 in outside legal fees since the plan was supposedly “finished” in early October of 1998.Both sides say the process has been grueling but good.“That the commissioners met with WEAN is significant,” said the county’s outside legal consultant Keith Dearborn. For years, the two groups have often been at odds, but have always had to duel across public hearings, e-mail or written documents. This fall marked the first time they have formally met to settle issues.“We want to build on that,” said Island County Planning Director Phil Bakke.WEAN spokesman Steve Erickson said he, too, was pleased to finally work one-on-one with the commissioners, but said a lot of time and expense could have been avoided if they had done it sooner rather than later.“I don’t think they’d have listened to us at all without the threat of litigation,” said Erickson. He said WEAN has been attending public hearings throughout the 1990s but met nothing but resistance until they filed their first lawsuit in 1995. “The position of the commissioners and their predecessors has been to resist and wear people down.”WEAN’s Marianne Edain agreed, saying that, as far as she’s concerned, negotiations are preferable to lawsuits.“We’re not thrilled to use this tool, but it’s the only tool available to us,” she said.Here is a look at some of the things that have changed under the revised plan.COMMERCIAL AGRICULTURE ZONEFarmland considered to be in long-term commercial production.• Increased in size from 1,900 acres in the old plan to 4,680 acres now. Includes more smaller farms.• Base density increased from one-home-per-40-acre zoning to one-home-per-20-acres.• Earned Development Units opportunities are reduced. EDUs permit greater development potential if a certain percentage of the property is set aside with a conservation easement. For Commercial Agriculture land, 85 percent of the parcel must be covered by an easement in perpetuity and the property owner must prepare a management plan before EDUs are available. EDU development cannot be done on land containing prime soils.• Property owners have 180 days from the date of the law to opt out of the zone classification.RURAL AGRICULTURE ZONEFarmland that may or may not be in commercial production.• Farms 10 acres in size or larger can be included. Previously parcels had to be 20 acres or larger in size.• Many previously-zoned Rural Agriculture parcels moved to Commercial Agriculture designation.• No EDU program.• Affects about 6,000 acres of land in the county.RURAL FOREST ZONEForested land in commercial production but not for the long term.• Lot size changed from 20 acres or more to 10 acres or more.• Stricter re-zone standards.• No EDU program.• Planned Residential Developments with a density bonus permitted, provided that 80 percent of land is kept in open space.• Affects only about 100 property owners in the county, but about 14,000 acres of land.LANGLEY• City is given more control over type, style and amount of development in the area around the city known as the Joint Planning Area. OAK HARBOR• City is given more control over type, style and amount of development in the area around the city known as the Joint Planning Area.• County laws brought into compliance with more-restrictive city laws in noise zones around NAS Whidbey.• County laws on tree retention and open space brought into compliance with more-restrictive city laws.FREELAND AND CLINTON• Reduction in size of largest permitted building from 50,000 square feet to 27,000 square feet in Freeland and from 50,000 square feet to 14,000 square feet in Clinton.• Deadline of December 2000 established for a decision from each town as to whether they plan to take a step toward cityhood by becoming Non-Municipal Urban Growth Areas.RURAL AREAS OF MORE INTENSE DEVELOPMENT (RAIDs)Areas in rural parts of the county where existing development has already exceeded the base rural density. Such areas are allowed to infill at the current density but not to grow outward. • Size of six RAIDs reduced. The growth board ordered that the boundaries of eight of the county’s 41 RAIDs were too broadly drawn. The county reduced the size of seven (Harrington Lagoon, Lands Hill, Livingston Bay Heights, Penn Cove, Teronda West, Useless Bay/Bayview and West Beach) for a total of about 1,000 acres and justified the size of another (West Deer Lake). The growth board has accepted six or the redrawn RAIDs but has told the county to make further cuts on the West Beach and Useless Bay/Bayview RAIDs.NATIVE PLANTS/WILDLIFE• Stricter protection of herons and osprey. Proposed development near heron and osprey nests will have to undergo a county study of an area 1,000 feet around the nests. Old ordinance specified a 100-foot study area.SHORELINES• New shoreline homes will have to be set further back from the water. Under the new law about 220 lots in the county will require a greater setback than already existing neighboring homes. There will also be stricter rules on the location of an on-site sewage system.Future Cities?Are Freeland and Clinton headed for cityhood? Two upcoming meetings may help answer the question.The county’s Comprehensive Plan calls for the two unincorporated towns to take on a bigger share of future population growth. The county hired outside consulting firm R. W. Beck to prepare a first-phase report on existing conditions and how the towns might accomplish the task.The firm will present its Freeland report on Thursday, Dec. 2, at 7 p.m. at the Trinity Lutheran Church in Freeland. It will do the same for Clinton on Dec. 13 at 7 p.m. at the Clinton Progressive Hall. The public is welcome. "

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