Shoreline plan amendment causes a stir

Island County residents have until this Friday, Feb. 16 to weigh in on its coastline.

Island County residents have until this Friday, Feb. 16 to weigh in on one of Whidbey Island’s most prominent features – its coastline.

Island County commissioners are in the process of discussing changes to the Shoreline Master Program, a document enforcing the policies of the state Shoreline Management Act. The county Shoreline Master Program provides policies, regulations and permit procedures for shoreline development. An update passed in 2016 focused on management of shoreline natural resources.

The latest update to the program has been underway since 2020. The 468-page document can be accessed by visiting the “related docs” section of the county commissioners’ regular meeting agenda from Feb. 6.

A widely attended public hearing last week included comments from 27 people, with the bulk of the conversation centering around the use of hard armor — such as bulkheads and sea walls — versus soft shore protection, the latter of which the county encourages to guard against sea level rise. Under the proposed update, hard armoring is only allowed under some circumstances if the reports and data are available to support its use, Long Range Planner John Lanier told the commissioners.

During the hearing, several property owners testified about defending their homes from the rising tides, with most experiencing flooding of some kind, especially in the Mutiny Bay area.

“You have to meet a three-year trend analysis of prior rates of erosion,” South Whidbey resident Brad Thompson said of qualifying for shoreline armoring. “The problem with that is that erosion, at least on our beach, is not linear. It happens whenever we have big storms. So this one size just does not fit all.”

Lisa Place opposed an amendment that would result in the oldest bulkheads in historic beach communities being regulated the same as new structures.

Others denounced hard armoring and said that it does little to mitigate flooding but does cause harm to sand and sediments.

“It’s a game of hot potato where the existing property owner gets a temporary reprieve from sea level rise and unloads some property onto the next sucker,” said Steve Erickson of the Whidbey Environmental Action Network. “Then that sucker does the same thing again — rinse, repeat until someone’s left holding the hot potato and there aren’t any more suckers.”

Krista Loercher, owner of Whidbey Kayaking and a member of the South Whidbey Parks and Recreation District board, worried about public beach access areas shrinking if hard armoring increases on private waterfront homes.

“Island County’s biggest asset is its geographic location and beauty,” she said. “Deterioration of our scenic shorelines would be a detriment that hinders economic growth of the county. Hard armoring of our coastline does not support either a green nor blue economy.”

While Commissioner Janet St. Clair said she wasn’t a fan of hard armoring, she acknowledged that sometimes it might be the only solution to stabilize a bluff and stop a house from falling into the sea.

Commissioner Melanie Bacon wondered if a middle ground could be reached in regard to both protecting the environment and protecting the assets of property owners.

“So what is Island County’s philosophy around the tensions of pushing back against nature to protect public and private property versus our desire to protect our fragile natural ecosystems that are facing so many stressors to their continued viability?” she said.

Citizens can send additional comments about the Shoreline Master Program to

More deliberation from the board is expected during the upcoming meeting on Feb. 21, and the final hearing is scheduled for March 19.