Regulations force bulkhead owners to plan

If Pat Loveless could give shoreline property owners one piece of advice about doing construction work on or near a bulkhead, his recommendation would have nothing to do with designing the structure or pouring the concrete. He would advise applying for a permit early.

Loveless and four of his neighbors wish they had done the same. Living along a bulkheaded portion of Whidbey Shores, they have watched as the past 13 years of tides and winter storms washed inch after inch of sand away from the base of the wall that is the only barrier between their homes and the water.

Last winter, the water exposed the bottom of the wall’s footings and threatened to undercut and collapse the bulkhead. Knowing their houses wouldn’t be long to follow if the wall fell over, Loveless and his neighbors applied in March for a permit to do some emergency work to protect the base of the wall. They hoped to hire a contractor and install a hard plastic barrier in front of the bulkhead that would stop any undercutting. It was work they felt needed to be done immediately.

But they found getting a permit to do the work took months, and even when they received it in August, they could not have the work done when they needed it — partially due to a contractor’s schedule and partially due to the short window the state allows for shoreline work.

Though some of the sand came back this summer, Loveless said the bulkhead still needs work before the winter storms return. The next work window is not until March, so he is worried the wall could be falling over before the state and Island County allow him to do the work to save it.

“Right now it’s a waiting game,” Loveless said.

Players in this game include the sand, fish, state regulations, and Loveless and his neighbors. Holding the strongest hand are the sand and fish, neither of which can be disturbed in anything less than an emergency. The sand in front of Loveless’ bulkhead is home to a fish called the sand lance. Considered an important forage food for salmon, sand lances lay their eggs in the sand near shorelines. Other fish that are part of the salmon’s larder — herring and smelt — also make their homes around Whidbey Island’s shorelines.

With about 24 percent or 60 of its 280 miles of its shoreline “hardened” with wood and concrete sea walls and bulkheads, Whidbey Island has a large area in which people and fish must get along. State law requires it. The only times during the year bulkhead repair or construction work is allowed around Whidbey Island is between March 1 and March 15 and June 15 and Oct. 15. And even during those windows, people doing work along the shoreline are not allowed to move the sand. So not only do Loveless and his neighbors have to wait for the right time, they must also wait for the water to expose the bulkhead footing.

It wasn’t that way when Loveless built his bulkhead in 1988. Now, he said, there is a clear conflict between the rights of people to protect their property and the endangered status of salmon. Though he is a fisherman himself and believes the salmon population is in trouble, he said the state and counties need to be more reasonable in situations like his.

“All of a sudden we’re so concerned with fish,” he said. “What would it hurt to move some sand.”

Julie Klacan, a biologist with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the hurt would be to the salmon food supply. She acknowledged getting a permit to do bulkhead work does take time. Bulkhead owners must have their job assessed for its environmental impacts by the county they live in, then must wait for her agency to sign off on a permit.

While she will visit emergency sites like that belonging to Loveless and issue emergency work permits when a bulkhead is in danger of collapse, she said the best thing a property owner can do is plan ahead. The fish rules are not going to relax any time soon, she said.

“It would behoove people to get their applications in early,” she said.

Loveless wishes he had. He said he will be watching the sand level this winter and will call Klacan the moment the water washes the last of the sand away from the bulkhead footing. In the future, he hopes the state will allow property owners to take some temporary measures, such as placing rocks in front of their bulkheads, and speeds up its permitting process.

“The bottom line is I am so frustrated,” he said.

An emergency work permit from Fish and Wildlife will allow Loveless to work on his bulkhead regardless of fish protection rules.

Whidbey Island is actually one of the least-heavily shore hardened areas in Puget Sound. Jeff Tate, a planner with Island County, said 45 percent of shorlines are hardened in central Puget Sound, while about 30 percent of shorelines have bulkheads or sea walls in the Olympia area.

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