County commissioners approve new wetlands rules

After nearly three years of work, Island County commissioners unanimously adopted new wetlands rules Monday.

The new regulations will go into effect July 1.

County officials praised the rules as being a departure from the current one-size-fits-all set of regulations that restrict development on properties with wetlands.

“It transforms the way the county will be working with the community to protect wetlands into the future,” said County Commissioner Phil Bakke. Bakke was chief of the county planning department when work on the new rules began in 2005.

“We are now using a system that is based on the best science out there, to maximize the opportunities for protection of wetlands and critters, and water quality — all of the things that come with wetlands,” he said.

Application of the new rules will be tailored to the circumstances found on each individual property. In the past, the county established standardized “buffers” — a regulatory no-build area around wetlands — based in part on the type of wetland found on a property.

That’s changed. Under the new rules, a buffer’s size will be based on whether it provides high quality habitat or protects water quality. Some of the current buffers will be reduced in size, others may be bigger, and some may stay the same.

“We are peeling back the onion to see what’s at the center and, then, what will best protect that feature without overregulation,” Bakke said.

“The old ordinance picked out a

100-foot [buffer] number that was just kind of plucked from the sky,” he said.

“There is a scientific basis for what we have today.”

Not everyone is happy with the new rules, however.

The Whidbey Environmental Action Network and others earlier complained that the new rules don’t go far enough and gave too much leeway to developers. Critics said the new regulations would allow “swampbusting” — logging in wetlands areas and conversion of the land to farming. Some also said the new regulations would allow the development of every piece of property that has a wetland, no matter how big the size of the wetland.

County officials, though, said landowners must be given “reasonable use” of their properties, and the county should not prevent property owners from building a homes on their land. The county said it may require the relocation of septic systems or access roads, or adjustments to the footprint of a home, when development is proposed on property with a wetland.

Buffers will also be flexible. Landowners with parcels of 1 acre or bigger will get incentives if they follow a rural stewardship plan that includes conservation strategies and other earth friendly measures.

“Your buffer could be made smaller if you do a rural stewardship plan, if you adapt the way you are going to develop the property,” Bakke said.

More information on the new wetlands rules, including downloadable guidebooks, is available on the county Web site at

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