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Island County unveils new wetlands regulations

Regulations that cover development near wetlands, such as Deer Lagoon, have been rewritten by county planners. - Gayle Saran/Record file
Regulations that cover development near wetlands, such as Deer Lagoon, have been rewritten by county planners.
— image credit: Gayle Saran/Record file

For property owners who own land with wetlands, getting permits is going to become a lot more complex. There will also be no easy answers.

And that’s a good thing, said Phil Bakke, director of the Island County planning department.

The county has just finished revising rules that cover lands with wetlands, the first major rewrite of the regulations in more than two decades.

The revisions are necessary as the county updates its “critical areas ordinance,” the set of rules that restrict development on properties with environmentally sensitive features such as streams, wetlands and steep slopes.

“Of all the critical area components, wetlands is the most complicated and controversial,” Bakke said.

Although Island County was the first in the state to adopt wetland regulations in the early 1980s, little has been done to the rules since then.

“We’ve made very few changes since 1984,” Bakke said.

“The science has evolved tremendously since 1984. So what you have here is basically a complete rewrite of the ordinance,” he said.

In the earlier set of rules, the no-go areas around wetlands called “buffers” were based solely on the type of the wetland being regulated.

That will change.

Now, the county will categorize wetlands into four classes, and the county will work with property owners to determine the size of buffers, which will range from 20 feet to 300 feet based on a number of factors.

But Bakke said that means there will no longer be quick-and-easy answers for property owners at the permit county.

The county learned its lesson during its rewrite of critical areas rules for farmlands last year, which led to public meetings packed with angry farmers and disappointed environmentalists and the resumption of a lawsuit against the county over the regulations. Some thought the farm rules were too restrictive, while others thought the regulations were too lax.

“We really have taken from the ag experience in developing this program,” Bakke said. “People wanted us to be catering our regulations to what they have on site.”

For wetlands, the county will consider the type of wetland, the vegetation found there, and the use of the land before applying a set of rules to the property.

To assist property owners, the county has created a “welands identification guide” to assist property owners.

A brochure explaining the changes to the program should also start landing in mailboxes across Island County this weekend, Bakke said.

A series of public workshops on the new wetlands rules will also be held this month and next.

County officials said property owners should bring their property tax parcel number if they want to meet individually with a county planner to learn how the new regulations may affect their land.

The schedule is:

Monday, May 21 (6 to 8 p.m.) at South Camano Grange Hall, 2221 S. Camano Dr., Camano Island;

Wednesday, May 30 (6 to 8 p.m.) at the Race Road Fire Station, 1164 Race Road, south of Coupeville;

Thursday, May 31 (7 to 9 p.m.) at the Taylor Road Fire Station, 3440 Taylor Road, North Whidbey;

Saturday, June 2 (10 a.m. to noon) at Four Springs Lake Preserve, 585 Lewis Lane, Camano Island;

Wednesday, June 6 (6 to 8 p.m.) at the Race Road Fire Station;

Thursday, June 7 (6 to 8 p.m.) at Trinity Lutheran Church, 18341 Highway 525, Freeland.

The county planning commission is expected to review the rules in September and November, with the new regulations eventually going before the county commissioners for approval.

Information on the new rules, including the draft ordinance and studies conducted in support of the regulations, can be found online at www.islandcounty.net/planning/caupdates.htm.

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