Growth Board visits Thursday

"It’s back to the hearings board for Island County officials and the Whidbey Environmental Action Network tomorrow. In their continuing faceoff over growth management issues, the two sides will be in familiar territory.During the past few years, WEAN and the county have argued many issues before the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board. Each has won some and lost some. Now, only a few issues still remain. But they are long-standing, hard-fought issues that may very well end up in court regardless of which way the state board rules.In preparation for Thursday’s hearing, both WEAN and the county have compiled pounds of pages and hyperbole on the subjects of rural density, stream buffers, on-going agriculture activities and locally significant plants and animals. The growth board, a trio of governor-appointed land-use experts, was set up by the state Legislature to determine whether county and city growth plans legally comply with the state’s 1990 Growth Management Act. It was designed to settle conflicts before they reached the more costly and overburdened court system. For the vast majority of the county’s 20-year plan, the growth board has served that purpose. Through board rulings or through negotiations between the county and appellants, most of the plan is already in place.But the last few issues being heard Thursday could still have far-reaching effects. Here is a quick overview of the upcoming debate. RURAL DENSITYWill property owners in the Rural zones of Island County be able to build one home per five acres or one home per 10 or more acres?When the county commissioners first proposed a blanket five-acre rural zoning package in their 1998 Comprehensive Plan, the growth board threw it back, saying the Growth Management Act required a “variety of rural densities.” The board virtually ordered the county to adopt interim one-in-10 zoning until they could write a more acceptable plan.The commissioners tinkered with their proposal and last April adopted a revised plan that put general five-acre zoning back in place.The commissioners say one-in-five density is the only reasonable course to preserve affordability of rural land and retain any sense of logic to rural zoning. It would be unrealistic, they say, to further downzone private property in rural Island County and they see no logical pattern of large lots they can “single out” for further reductions in development potential.WEAN argues that the commissioners don’t see logic because they have narrowed their vision. Spokesman Steve Erickson says county officials did not consider parcel size and proximity to other large parcels as part of their zoning criteria. He says blanket five-acre zoning will fragment animal and plant habitat and could lead to the local extinction of some species. Besides, WEAN says, the Growth Management Act specifically calls for a variety or densities. If the growth board sides with WEAN, the county will probably appeal the issue to Superior Court. If the county wins, WEAN will likely take the same action.STREAM BUFFERSHow wide should undeveloped, unused buffer zones be next to “type 5” streams? Type 5’s are the smallest classification of stream and may only exist during rainy seasons.After talking with an outside consultant, the commissioners originally proposed 25 feet as an acceptable buffer. WEAN appealed the decision to the growth board, which eventually ruled that the county should increase the buffer to at least 50 feet.The commissioners did so, but added certain provisions excluding existing and ongoing agricultural activities and making the 50-foot buffer apply only in the Rural zone.WEAN has insisted since the beginning that the county’s rationale for buffering streams is inadequate and will lead to environmental damage. They now say that by designing a buffer law with so many loopholes, the county is effectively ignoring the growth board’s order.RAID BOUNDARIESAs part of the county’s Comprehensive Plan, certain non-urban areas are designated as Rural Areas of more Intense Development. These RAIDs are places where development has already occurred at a density higher than is permitted in areas outside of cities and towns.The Growth Management Act permits RAID’s but requires counties to draw tight boundaries around them and limit growth within them to existing density levels.In the county’s 1998 plan, a RAID boundary around the community of Freeland included undeveloped land on the south side of the highway and the massive Holmes Harbor housing development to the north. Following an appeal on RAID boundaries, the growth board ordered the county to eliminate both the Holmes Harbor property and the land on the south side of the highway from the Freeland RAID.In answer to the order, the county commissioners removed the south-of-the-highway property and some land between the Freeland RAID and the Holmes Harbor development. But instead of throwing out Holmes Harbor all together, they designated it as a separate RAID. Their logic is based on the fact that the Holmes Harbor property is already platted for dense development and has an existing water and sewer system. During deliberation, the commissioners said Holmes Harbor was more clearly a RAID than Freeland itself because of its infrastructure.WEAN, however, says the county is again trying to circumvent the board’s order and the law. The group says that though Holmes Harbor is platted for dense development, existing development is still sparse. The Growth Management Act requires RAID boundaries be drawn only around existing development, not expected development. WEAN will be asking the growth board to immediately invalidate the Holmes Harbor RAID.BEST MANAGEMENT PRACTICESThe Growth Management Act states that critical areas such as streams, lakes and wetlands need protection from pollution. No one disputes the need for protection. But the line where property rights stop and protection begins is not well defined — particularly with regard to small farms with a few cows, a couple horses, a little grazing land and some crops.In the past, the county had few laws on such protection and those that did exist were hardly ever enforced. Now, however, state requirements on critical area protection have gotten pretty tough and county regulations have followed suit.In Island County, the commissioners have tried to find a way to provide local farmers and ranchers some relief from the tougher laws by giving them the option of following less-restrictive best management practices (BMPs) instead. These practices allow many existing uses to continue while still applying some protection of neighboring critical areas. The growth board has already rejected this idea once and sent the county back to work on it. The commissioners have chosen to stick with the concept and try again.WEAN insists that the county’s plan amounts to little more than excuses to pollute, and tips the balance between property owners and protection in favor of the landowners.The growth board recently ruled against a similar BMP plan in Skagit County. The opinion among many of the farmers and ranchers has been that any regulation is too much and could ultimately drive them off their land. Many of them have encouraged the commissioners to take the issue to court if the board rejects Island County’s plan as well.WETLAND PROTECTIONThe growth board also didn’t like the county’s plan to protect category B wetlands, which are areas such as wet meadows. They directed the county to increase buffers around such areas to a minimum of 50 feet and to analyze whether the buffers should also be a protection zone for wildlife other than fish.Commissioners concluded that other wildlife do not need to be considered in the buffer size decision but increased the buffers to 50 feet anyway. Once again, however, they tempered the increase by excluding ongoing agricultural activities and by applying it only to the Rural zone.WEAN again falls back on the argument that the science which backs up the county’s position is flawed and that the buffer exemptions leave even the expanded buffers inadequate to protect the environment.DESIGNATION OF SPECIESThe growth act requires counties to designate species and habitats of local importance to protect plants and animals that are rare or threatened in an area. WEAN and Whidbey Audubon proposed such a list that the county has not taken action on. In addition, WEAN argues that any action the county has taken to protect some species is totally inadequate.County officials, however, say that the rules WEAN wants, such as those that would require up to 200-foot buffer zones, are too extreme and would virtually eliminate the use of some property by landowners.In negotiations between the parties, Audubon officials agreed to the county’s plans but WEAN did not. County attorneys will likely argue that WEAN can no longer represent Audubon’s wishes and therefore has no legal standing on the issue. WEAN will challenge that they have been involved throughout the process and insist that the county needs to offer better science to back up its stance.-----------------WHAT: Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board hearing on appeals to the Island County Comprehensive Plan. The meeting is open to the public but no public comment will be taken.WHEN: Thursday, Aug. 24, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.WHERE: Commissioners Hearing Room, Courthouse Annex, Coupeville "

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