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WEAN wins but worries about early deadline

Steve Erickson, litigation coordinator for Whidbey Environmental Action Network, speaks at a recent meeting of the Island County commissioners. A state regulatory board has supported a December petition from WEAN that the county has failed to update its development regulations for fish and wildlife conservation areas.  - Justin Burnett / The Record
Steve Erickson, litigation coordinator for Whidbey Environmental Action Network, speaks at a recent meeting of the Island County commissioners. A state regulatory board has supported a December petition from WEAN that the county has failed to update its development regulations for fish and wildlife conservation areas.
— image credit: Justin Burnett / The Record

Island County’s development regulations for fish and wildlife conservation areas are more than seven years out of date and a state regulatory board has given the planning department just six months to get them up to speed.

The ruling, issued late last month by the Growth Management Hearings Board, was in response to a failure to act petition filed by Whidbey Environmental Action Network in December.

Steve Erickson, litigation coordinator for the South Whidbey-based watchdog group, said this week that the decision achieved WEAN’s primary objective; an enforcement order that will ensure the update process begins soon.

To that effect, Erickson said, “We’re satisfied.”

He added, however, that the fire that’s been set beneath the feet of the planning department may in fact be a little too hot. The goal was for compliance but a six-month deadline may be unrealistic.

“The county just doesn’t have the resources,” he said.

Like many departments, staffing levels at Island County Planning and Community Development are down and the department will be hard tasked to effectively complete such a big project in so short a time, according to planning chief Bob Pederson.

Not only would a consultant need to be hired to perform some of the more specialized work but the rules would need to be fleshed out by the planning commission before going before the Island County commissioners for final approval.

“There wouldn’t be time for any meaningful public comment, which is one of the requirements of GMA,” Pederson said.

The Growth Management Act of 1990 was adopted by the Legislature and required counties and cities to adopt comprehensive land use plans and development regulations. The idea is to coordinate and manage growth and development while protecting natural resources and critical areas.

In 1998, the county adopted its comprehensive plan and its critical areas ordinance, which addressed wetlands and agriculture to geologically hazardous and frequently flooded areas.

Subject to continual review, the state established a Dec. 1, 2005, deadline for Island County to updates all its rules with the best available science. With the exception of fish and wildlife habitat conservation areas, all have been completed.

According to hearings board records, county officials acknowledged the rules are out of compliance and asked for a full two years to complete the work. WEAN, recognizing the county’s limitations, requested the job be completed in a year and a half.

The enforcement order said the two parties were requested to reach an agreement for a compliance schedule but were unable to do so. In response, the hearings board required the work be finished in six months, which is actually the maximum amount of time allowed except in cases of “unusual scope or complexity.”

Erickson said he and county officials are now working together and plan to go back to the hearings board with a request to push back the timeline due to the extenuating circumstances.

Whatever is decided, Pederson said the work will delay some other long-range projects, particularly other planned updates to the county’s comprehensive plan, which are due in June of 2016.

Getting this done has become a top priority.

“It will have to,” Pederson said. “We have to allocate all our resources to complying with the growth board’s order.”

There may also be some budget ramifications due to the need for a consultant but it remains unclear whether they will materialize. The department has applied for some grant funding and a new decision by the hearings board would impact when funds are needed.

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