Wetland regulations substantially upheld

A South Whidbey environmental group’s challenge to Island County’s new wetland regulations was successful on three issues that must be fixed in the next 90 days.

Nevertheless, members of Whidbey Environmental Action Network, known as WEAN, aren’t thrilled with the 89-page decision from the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board, which found in favor of the county on 10 other issues.

“There were a couple of things that even they could not swallow,” said Marianne Edain of WEAN, who’s dismayed at the direction the hearings board has taken over the last few years. “They just threw us a bone.”

In addition, the hearings board didn’t agree with WEAN’s co-petitioner, Camano Action For a Rural Environment or CARE, on any of the seven issues they brought forward.

Island County Planning Director Jeff Tate is pleased with the decision and describes the three areas that need fixes as minor, “no brainers” that will be easy to amend. He points out that the board didn’t invalidate the ordinance.

“In effect, the Growth Management Hearings Board doesn’t think that the things requiring fixes are significant,” he said.

Specifically, the board ruled that the county must amend the definition of “reasonable use” so that it’s more limited in scope; remove an arbitrary 25 percent limit on increases to wetland buffers; and create a monitoring program for rural stewardship plans.

The county’s wetland ordinance, which covers non-agriculture land, was adopted by county commissioners in March. It deals with setbacks between development and wetlands as well as a myriad other issues. Under state law, the county is required to adopt a series of ordinances to protect critical areas — namely geologically hazardous; frequently flooded; aquifer recharge; wetlands; and fish and wildlife.

Instead of adopting the state’s model rules, Tate explained that the county developed a one-of-a-kind, custom-made wetland ordinance appropriate for the county’s two major islands.

“The entire structure of the county’s wetlands ordinance is so complicated that we don’t believe it’s reasonably possible to protect wetlands using this incredibly difficult tool,” Edain said.

Tate admits that it is complex, but he said it will meet the important goals.

“You can adopt something that’s black and white and really easy to understand, but black and white is really rigid,” he said. “As you add flexibility and options to an ordinance, it becomes more complicated.”

Gov. Chris Gregoire directed two state agencies to file briefs with the hearings board in support of the county’s wetland ordinance. The three-member Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board’s job is to decide if new ordinances and rules comply with the state’s Growth Management Act.

WEAN feels that the county’s wetland ordinance will ultimately lead to the destruction of wetlands because it allows, in Edain’s words, “a million-and-one, get-out-of-jail-free cards” for developers who want to drain wetlands.

Edain said WEAN, and possibly CARE, will likely ask the board to reconsider the decision, which they have 10 days to do. But beyond that, Edain expects that WEAN and other environmental groups will be able to work with the new Island County commissioners on wetland and other ordinances instead of resorting to litigation.

“Everything changed on Nov. 4,” Edain said, referring to the election of Helen Price Johnson and Angie Homola, both Democrats, to the board of Island County commissioners.

During the campaigns, both women were critical of the wetland ordinance, while the incumbent candidates trumpeted it as a model for the rest of the state.

“The reason we had to bring a challenge in the first place is that the sitting commissioners made it their policy not to listen to WEAN,” Edain said. “We’re hoping with the new commissioners we can deal with the issues earlier and not have to go through this.”

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