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County says wetlands rules almost complete

Theresa Marie Gandhi uses a stuffed fish as a prop to raise concerns Monday about the county’s new wetlands rules. - Brian Kelly
Theresa Marie Gandhi uses a stuffed fish as a prop to raise concerns Monday about the county’s new wetlands rules.
— image credit: Brian Kelly

Critics continue to take aim at new regulations

COUPEVILLE — Puffed up by a largely laudatory letter from the state, Island County commissioners said Monday they were nearly ready to adopt new rules covering development on properties with wetlands.

Approval of the new rules could come before the end of the month. Commissioners will hold one last meeting on Jan. 28 for a public hearing on four final amendments to the wetlands regulations.

At the commissioners’ meeting earlier this week, officials acknowledged that the complex rewrite of the regulations has not been universally popular.

“Obviously, this is a complex document,” said Val Hillers, chairwoman of the county’s planning commission.

“There were people who were not happy with various parts of it,” she said, but all agreed with the goal of the new rules: to maintain healthy, functioning ecosystems and protect critical areas.

Hillers estimated that the planning commission spent at least 1,000 hours reviewing the new rules.

Public input was extensive, she said, “and the ordinance, we have read, and reread, and reread and thought about. And made many changes in reflection to the concerns of the public and other people who have given input.”

“This ordinance has many compromises,” Hillers added. “We have really attempted to both protect critical areas and permitted uses of property. There are times when those goals are somewhat conflicting, and we have struggled really hard with that.”

Although a hearing was not held this week on the new rules, some residents used the public comment period during this week’s commissioners’ meeting to lambast the new regulations.

Members of the Whidbey Environmental Action Network and others have said the new rules don’t go far enough and give too much leeway to developers.

Holding a stuffed animal under her left arm, activist poet Theresa Marie Gandhi of Clinton warned of potential damages the county could face if the new rules do not protect salmon as the Endangered Species Act requires.

“I don’t know if you know fish; this is a Chinook. It has something to say to you all today,” she said with he fish’s head aimed at the board of commissioners.

It’s an endangered species, she added, and Island County shoreline is its habitat.

“I’m a fish out of a wetland. My children will die, with no stream water, to grow my fry.”

“To kill my kind, you pave its way,” she added.

“Do you not know the cost to you, under the ESA?”

The county began its rewrite of its rules covering “critical areas” - environmentally sensitive spots such as wetlands, streams and steep slopes - three years ago. Some asked the county to start over.

“I think it needs a major overhaul. There’s too

many loopholes. It’s not going to work,” said Angie Homola of Oak Harbor.

County officials, however, said the new rules had been extensively reviewed and will mean greater protection for wetlands in Island County.

“It requires, and no other jurisdiction has done this, it requires that critical areas be avoided if they can be. That the impacts be reduced if they can’t be avoided, that impacts be restored if they can’t be avoided.” explained Keith Dearborn, a Seattle lawyer hired by the county to assist in the rule update. “And it requires mitigation compensation if there is intrusion into a critical area or a critical area buffer.”

Dearborn said the rules were not a one-size-fits-all approach. Properties with different types of wetlands, and different types of proposed land-use activities, will face different sets of regulations — including the size of “no go” areas such as buffers.

“The critical area ordinance is being tailored on a case-by-case basis to match up with the impact being generated by the proposal. That’s a lot more work for staff, but it will be vastly better in terms of protection,” Dearborn added.

Dearborn, who helped write the county’s first set of critical areas regulations in the 1980s, said a scientific review of the existing regulations shows that some are too stringent.

“Buffers established by the existing system are, 80 percent of the time, larger than the buffers that will be established under the new rules. For most property owners — five-acre lot, single-family home development — the buffers will be smaller in the new system,” he said.

“It’s clear the vast damage to wetlands was long before that ordinance was adopted. and in fact, since that ordinance was adopted, very little if any damage has been done to wetlands in Island County,” added County Commissioner Mac McDowell.

“I think the public, in my opinion, owes you a debt of gratitude almost - not almost - if their concern is preserving wetlands,” he told Dearborn.

Commissioner John Dean said county government has had a bad rap for being pro-development. The new rules reflect a balance, he said.

“I felt early on, when I read the ordinance, from a layman’s standpoint, that the county truly was trying to find some middle ground and some balance. I feel they have accomplished that,” Dean said.

“I think we hit some middle ground that is fair to both sides. We will protect the environment, and we will allow people to live here, we will not boot them off their property.”

Dean said some people believe county government is pro-growth. He didn’t agree.

“I don’t see that. People work overtime to reach that balance,” Dean added.

Commissioners also enthusiastically pointed to a Jan. 4 letter from the state that gave glowing praise for the new rules.

Though the letter mentioned one flaw in the rules - one that the county plans to amend after a public hearing later this month - it said the county’s work on the regulations could become a model for other governments to follow. The state Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development said the Island County effort was “among the highest quality work prepared so far” in using the standard of “best available science” in the preparation of rules to protect critical areas.

The letter said the regulations would be effective in protecting wetlands from the adverse impacts of development, and praised the county’s monitoring program and rural stewardship program.

County officials eagerly handed out copies of the letter at Monday’s meeting, and one reporter had four copies of the letter before the meeting concluded.

Four final amendments are expected before the rules are adopted on Jan. 28.

Most appear minor. Planning director Jeff Tate said one change would delay the implementation of the new regulations until July 1.

Ordinances typically go into effect 90 days after adoption.

“We’ve gone through the ordinance in great detail to look at all of the different things the ordinance now calls for,” Tate said.

The list is long, from creating forms, to training staff, to conducting a public outreach effort on the rules.

“There are a lot of things we need to mobilize,” Tate said.

According to the implementation plan for the wetlands rules, field testing and staff training will be held this month and continue through May.

In February, the county’s wetlands maps will be updated and a new critical areas planner will be hired.

The new rural stewardship plan will be edited in March, and land-use applications will be updated in April.

The outreach effort to contractors, real estate agents and consultants is also expected to kick off in April and continue through June.

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