Despite still-pending appeal, county doubles wetland buffers

Though Island County's planners think 25-foot wetland buffers are wide enough, the county will enlarge them next month while waiting for a judge to tell them if they were adequate in the first place.

Faced with possible state sanctions, Island County needs to temporarily abide by a state finding that its setback buffers for wetlands in non-rural zones are too small. So they will make them larger, for now.

At a Dec. 24 meeting, Island County commissioners scheduled a public hearing for 10:45 a.m. Jan. 7 to adopt an interim amendment increasing the buffer for Category B wetlands from the previous distance of 25 feet to 50 feet.

In June 1999, the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board found that Island County's 25-foot buffer for wetlands was "not adequate to protect wildlife." The finding came after the Whidbey Environmental Action Network appealed the county's wetland ordinance to the board.

On Nov. 17, 2000, the hearings board said while the county's 50-foot wetland buffer for rural zones was appropriate, the 25-foot setback in other zones needed to be doubled or analyzed to determine the "adequacy of its other provisions to protect wildlife functions in these zones."

Steve Erickson, one of WEAN's founders, said the decision was the best he could get.

"It's certainly better than 25 feet," he said.

The county has appealed the hearing board's order in Island County Superior Court.

Even though that appeal is still pending, the commissioners need to adopt an interim amendment increasing all wetland buffers to 50 feet to avoid a finding of invalidity and a recommendation of sanctions. Sanctions could cost the county some state funding.

Both of Island County's Superior Court judges, Vicki Churchill and Alan Hancock, excused themselves from hearing the appeal. A Whatcom County judge will now hear the appeal sometime in the next few months.

The hearing on the interim wetland amendment will be held in the Courthouse Annex in Coupeville.

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