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Growth Hearings Board upholds 5 acre rural zoning

"The Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board has released its latest rulings on several key Island County land use laws. Though the board sided against county officials on one major issue, they generally agreed with the county on important points regarding the size of rural parcels and the splitting of the former Freeland growth area.I feel vindicated, said Island County Commissioner Mac McDowell after the latest board decision crossed his desk last Thursday. The hearings board felt the process we went through was valid. We worked to get a lot of people on board. The board recognized that.The state board steps into the local planning process whenever a legal appeal is made to a provision of a county or city Comprehensive Plan. It then determines whether the provision meets the guidelines of the state's 1990 Growth Management Act. The appeals that have been most recently under review were brought against the county by the Whidbey Environmental Action Network.WEAN spokesman Steve Erickson said Friday that his group would probably file a motion asking the board for formal reconsideration of at least one of their decisions.Speaking for the commissioners, McDowell said he was most pleased about the board's decision to uphold the county's one-home-per-five-acre development density level on lands zoned Rural in the county plan. That means that owners of Rural-zoned land will be able to construct a home on every five-acre parcel. The county has currently been operating under one-per-10 zoning in rural areas.WEAN had argued that there should be one-per-five, one-per-10 and one-per-20 zoning in order to comply with the growth act's call for a variety of rural densities. They also said that one-in-five zoning would lead to the further breakup of wildlife corridors.The hearings board had previously rejected the county's one-in-five concept when it was first appealed in 1998 by the Citizens Growth Management Coalition. But after negotiations, the coalition agreed not to fight the five-acre zoning in order to keep the county from becoming even more polarized and litigious over the issue.WEAN, which had been a member of the coalition, disagreed and split from the group over this point. At the last growth board hearing, the coalition defended the county against WEAN's appeal.In their written decision on the rural zoning question, the growth board said the coalition's reversal of opinion had considerable impact on our decision.But it wasn't a unanimous decision for the three-member board. Board member Les Eldridge dissented on the rural zoning question. Eldridge said that avoiding a polarized community may be a virtuous goal but it isn't a valid substitute for compliance with the growth act. He also pointed to specific areas in the county where he though more restrictive zoning could have been imposed.Erickson said he was puzzled why the remaining board members didn't see the same things Eldridge did. Reading from the ruling, Erickson said the board even agreed with WEAN's contention that additional land division will cause further breakup of natural landscapes, more fragmentation of wildlife habitat and degradation of surface and groundwater, and make things harder on the county's farmers. But Eldridge's counterparts were satisfied that the county had done the right thing under what they called a truly unique set of local circumstances. Commissioner Bill Thorn said that admission is very important to the county's future planning.They recognized the uniqueness of Island County, he said.Commissioner Mike Shelton said the believes the rural character and wildlife will be preserved even with the higher density levels.We made substantial changes to the critical area regulations in order to accommodate the five-acre zoning, said Shelton.Erickson said WEAN will formally ask the board to reconsider their decision.Holmes Harbor RAID allowedIn other decisions the board agreed with the county that the 295-acre greater Holmes Harbor Golf and Yacht Club should be designated as a Rural Area of more Intense Development, or RAID. RAIDs are areas where higher density growth has already occurred. The growth act allows counties to draw tight boundaries around RAIDs and allow them to infill with the same density. WEAN objected to the county's claim the Holmes Harbor was a RAID, saying its density was based on current and potential development rather than on the existing development as of 1990 which the growth act says should be used to set boundaries. WEAN also objected to the inclusion of unsubdivided portions of land inside the county's boundary line. The board agreed with WEAN that some shoreline parcels should not be further subdivided but said that overall the Holmes Harbor RAID, with its existing water and sewer system, met the guidelines of the act. Erickson said WEAN will likely not fight the decision.Rare species nominations lateDespite the fact that it sided with the county on most of the issues, the board had one bone to pick. The growth act calls for counties to accept nominations of locally important or rare species of plants and animals. County officials must then determine if the species deserves local protection. In June of 1999, the board told the county to make such a determination on a list of nominations supplied by WEAN, But a year later Erickson said the county had not done so and the resulting situation had left some species in danger of local extinction.The board agreed, saying the county has more than enough information to make a determination and must reach a decision by the end of January or face possible economic sanctions by the state.McDowell said the commissioners will meet the deadline and added that the board's ruling did not specify that all WEAN's nominations had to be approved.They said we have enough information to make a decision. They didn't say what the decision has to be, he said.The growth board still has to decide on three remaining issues relating to agricultural best management practices, wetland buffers and buffers along small and seasonal streams. "

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