Concerned residents and business owners took advantage of their last chance to publicly voice their feelings about Island County’s Shoreline Master Program this week.
The state Department of Ecology held an open house and public hearing Wednesday in Coupeville. The agency, which is charged with reviewing and approving the county’s recently adopted program, will accept written comments for several more weeks but this was the department’s only scheduled public meeting before Ecology officials make a decision.
Critics didn’t waste the opportunity as more than 35 people attended the three-hour event. Many took to the microphone to complain about specific sections of the program.
The hottest topics concerned aquaculture rules and regulations surrounding existing and future public beach accesses.
Ian Jefferds, owner of Penn Cove Shellfish, testified against last minute changes made by the Island County commissioners in December. Language was added that suggests his family’s mussel farm, in business since 1975, may have to prove that operations are not resulting in “adverse environmental impacts.”
Jefferds said the farm has done much to keep the water in Penn Cove clean and while the rule may have been directed at fin fish net pens, he regarded the language as an affront to their long efforts.
“This particular regulation is not only misdirected but offensive,” Jefferds said.
He didn’t go into specifics at the meeting, but one example of the farm’s water quality improvement efforts took place in 2010 when the company contributed $6,000 to the Port of Coupeville to help with the cost of a pump-out station at the Coupeville Wharf.
Fin fish net pens for non-native species was another controversial issue. Following overwhelming public testimony against such facilities last year, the commissioners agreed to ban them outright but the prohibition has been a source of heartburn for Ecology officials.
“We feel it may be too restrictive to accommodate this water-dependent use, which conflicts with some of the key elements of the Shoreline Management Act,” said David Pater, a shoreline planner with Ecology and the official reviewing the county’s plan, during Wednesday’s meeting.
Adopted by the state Legislature in 1972, the Act requires municipalities to adopt master programs that guide development on and around the waterfront, including lakes and rivers.
The foundation of the legislation is to reduce the impact of development on the environment. One of the chief ways of accomplishing that is by limiting the types of uses to those that cannot exist anywhere else, such as ferry docks or, in this case fish farms.
The agency has long held the position that fish farms they are one of a few allowed water-dependent uses and cannot simply be outlawed. But many feel Ecology’s stand is contradictory to the underlying goal of the Act.
Steve Erickson, a founder of Whidbey Environmental Action Network, called the facilities “feed lots” that produce and release massive amounts of untreated sewage into Puget Sound.
He accused the department of being a “captive of the industry,” representing the wishes of lobbyists over the expressed interest of the public on behalf of the environment.
“This is a classic example of what’s called a captive agency, where the industry the agency is supposed to regulate has taken over the agency,” he said.
There were also several representatives of the recently renamed beach access citizen advocacy group, Island Beach Access. Among them were founder Mike McVay, a Langley resident.
He expressed concerns that the program goals for maintaining existing and creating new public accesses may be difficult to enforce. McVay also questioned why the county’s public access map was not updated. The current version is incomplete and inaccurate, he said.
“This isn’t going to go away,” said McVay, concerning encroachment by private property owners. “It’s only going to get more competitive and combative.”
He wrapped by thanking Ecology officials for their time and for their understanding.
“Sorry you have to listen to us bully you like this,” said McVay, earning a round of chuckling from the crowd.
The deadline for public comments is 5 p.m., May 24. They can be mailed to Pater at 3190 160th Ave. S.E., Bellevue, WA 98008, emailed to email@example.com, or called in to 425-649-4253.
There are still several more steps in the process and it may be months before the agency issues a decision.