Growth Board visits Whidbey

"Appealing meetingWHAT: Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board hearing on appeals to the Island County Comprehensive Plan. The meeting is open to the public but no public comment will be taken.WHEN: Thursday, Aug. 24, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.WHERE: Commissioners Hearing Room, Courthouse Annex, CoupevilleIt's back to the hearings board for Island County officials and the Whidbey Environmental Action Network tomorrow. In their continuing faceoff over growth management issues, the two sides will be in familiar territory.During the past few years, WEAN and the county have argued many issues before the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board. Each has won some and lost some. Now, only a few issues still remain. But they are long-standing, hard-fought issues that may very well end up in court regardless of which way the state board rules. Here is a quick overview of the upcoming debate. Rural densityWill property owners in the Rural zones of Island County be able to build one home per five acres or one home per 10 or more acres?When the county commissioners first proposed a blanket five-acre rural zoning package in their 1998 Comprehensive Plan, the growth board threw it back saying the Growth Management Act required a variety of rural densities. The board virtually ordered the county to adopt interim one-in-10 zoning until they could write a more acceptable plan.The commissioners tinkered with their proposal and last April adopted a revised plan that put general five-acre zoning back in place.The commissioners say one-in-five density is the only reasonable course to preserve affordability of rural land and retain any sense of logic to rural zoning.WEAN spokesman Steve Erickson says county officials did not consider parcel size and proximity to other large parcels as part of their zoning criteria. He says blanket five-acre zoning will fragment animal and plant habitat and could lead to the local extinction of some species. Stream buffersHow wide should undeveloped, unused buffer zones be next to type 5 streams? Type 5's are the smallest classification of stream and may exist only during rainy seasons.After talking with an outside consultant, the commissioners originally proposed 25 feet as an acceptable buffer. WEAN appealed the decision to the growth board, which eventually ruled that the county should increase the buffer to at least 50 feet.The commissioners did so but added certain provisions excluding existing and ongoing agricultural activities and making the 50-foot buffer apply only in the Rural zone.WEAN has insisted since the beginning that the county's rationale for buffering streams is inadequate and will lead to environmental damage. Raid boundariesAs part of the county's Comprehensive Plan, certain non-urban areas are designated as Rural Areas of more Intense Development. These RAIDs are places where development has already occurred at a density higher than is permitted in areas outside of cities and towns.The Growth Management Act permits RAIDs but requires counties to draw tight boundaries around them and limit growth within them to existing density levels.In the county's 1998 plan, a RAID boundary around the community of Freeland included undeveloped land on the south side of the highway and the massive Holmes Harbor housing development to the north. Following an appeal on RAID boundaries, the growth board ordered the county to eliminate both the Holmes Harbor property and the land on the south side of the highway from the Freeland RAID.In answer to the order, the county commissioners removed the south-of-the-highway property and some land between the Freeland RAID and the Holmes Harbor development. But instead of throwing out Holmes Harbor altogether, they designated it as a separate RAID. Their logic is based on the fact that the Holmes Harbor property is already platted for dense development and has an existing water and sewer system. During deliberation, the commissioners said Holmes Harbor was more clearly a RAID than Freeland itself because of its infrastructure.WEAN, however, says the county is again trying to circumvent the board's order and the law. The group says that though Holmes Harbor is platted for dense development, existing development is still sparse. WEAN will be asking the growth board to immediately invalidate the Holmes Harbor RAID.Best MPsThe Growth Management Act states that critical areas such as streams, lakes and wetlands need protection from pollution. No one disputes the need for protection. But the line where property rights stop and protection begins is not well defined - particularly with regard to small farms with a few cows, a couple of horses, a little grazing land and some crops.In Island County, the commissioners have tried to find a way to provide local farmers and ranchers some relief from the tougher laws by giving them the option of following less-restrictive best management practices (BMPs) instead. These practices allow many existing uses to continue while still applying some protection of neighboring critical areas. The growth board has already rejected this idea once and sent the county back to work on it. The commissioners have chosen to stick with the concept and try again.WEAN insists that the county's plan amounts to little more than excuses to pollute and tips the balance between property owners and protection in favor of the landowners.Wetland protectionThe growth board also didn't like the county's plan to protect category B wetlands, which are areas such as wet meadows. They directed the county to increase buffers around such areas to a minimum of 50 feet and to analyze whether the buffers should also be a protection zone for wildlife other than fish.Commissioners concluded that other wildlife do not need to be considered in the buffer size decision but increased the buffers to 50 feet anyway. Once again, however, they tempered the increase by excluding ongoing agricultural activities and by applying the buffer only to the Rural zone.WEAN again falls back on the argument that the science which backs up the county's position is flawed and that the buffer exemptions leave even the expanded buffers inadequate to protect the environment.Designation of speciesThe growth act requires counties to designate species and habitats of local importance to protect plants and animals that are rare or threatened in an area. WEAN and Whidbey Audubon proposed such a list, which the county has not taken action on. "

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