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County says more rural houses are OK

"The Island County Commissioners have decided to stand their ground - ground measured in five-acre parcels. Monday afternoon, the three commissioners adopted new regulations that could permit as much as twice the development density currently allowed in rural parts of the county. But before they can take effect, the laws will have to get the OK from a state growth board who already rejected the concept once before. And the Whidbey Environmental Action Network has already said they won't let the commissioners' decision take effect without a fight.The new regulations call for one-home-per-five-acre density on about 42,000 acres of Rural-zoned land in lot sizes of five acres or more. Current law only permits one home for every 10 acres. The commissioners insist that one-in-five zoning will help keep the county's rural areas looking rural while providing reasonable, affordable development potential to a growing population. At the same time, the commissioners say they cannot justify any more downzoning of private property. They say there is no longer any logical pattern of large lots they can single out for further reductions in development potential.The existing one-in-10 law was virtually imposed on the county last June when the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board reviewed the county's Comprehensive Plan and invalidated the county's original one-in-five Rural zoning regulations. At the time, the board ruled that the laws failed to provide for a variety of rural densities as prescribed by the state's 1990 Growth Management Act.Specifically, the board pointed to county laws that allowed property owners of land zoned Rural Agriculture or Rural Forest to automatically rezone their one-in-20-base-density land to a one-in-five Rural classification.The commissioners eliminated that provision and changed Rural Agriculture and Rural Forest zones to a one-in-10 base density a few months ago. Monday, they also adopted tougher restrictions on development around the most common type of wetlands in the county, those known as Category B wetands. The commissioners, the staff planners and the county's chief planning consultant hope that such changes will convince the growth board that one-in-five Rural zoning is now OK. To help bolster their argument they produced a 57-page explanation of their reasoning which they passed out at Monday's public hearing.In my opinion, we've met the requirements, Island County Commissioner Mike Shelton said.Commissioner Bill Thorn agreed, but said development patterns permitted in the past, particularly during the 1960s, have left the current commissioners with little choice when it comes to limiting density.We are severely overplatted, he said. If we were starting over we would have done this differently.Commissioner Mac McDowell said one-in-five rural zoning will add about 13 percent more potential lots than one-in-10 zoning and will help keep the cost of home ownership down in Island County.Not everyone was convinced that was a good thing, however. Steve Erickson of the Whidbey Environmental Action Network argued against the blanket one-in-five rural density plan Monday. He said WEAN will continue to challenge the issue before the state growth board and in court if necessary.Erickson said chopping up so much of the county into five acre parcels will severely reduce wildlife habitat, particularly for animals such as flying squirrels and pileated woodpeckers that require larger tracts of forested land to survive."

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