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Residents oppose changes to county's comprehensive plan
New parking lots in Island County may be getting bigger in the near future.
In expressing their concerns before the Island County Board of Commissioners recently, a group of Whidbey Island residents voiced objections to changes in a zoning law allowing property owners to exceed site coverage standards under certain circumstances.
The site coverage variance amendment to Island County's comprehensive plan gives the county's planning department authority to allow developers to expand parking lot sizes beyond typically regulated limits, though only if certain stipulations are met.
At issue is the matter of impervious surfaces versus other surfaces that allow the penetration of rainwater, and what proportion of the two is reasonable on any given piece of property.
The commissioners, in their annual review of the comp plan, approved the proposed amendment, but not before a handful of citizens spoke out against the change.
Opposition came over environmental concerns and issues of overdevelopment, with emphasis on how expansion of impervious surfaces would affect the hydrological health of Island County's aquifers. Speaking before the board at its Jan. 7 meeting, Clinton resident Tom Fisher said any law that eases the way to more impervious surfaces is "a delicate process." Fisher also questioned the manner by which site variances are judged.
"We have a problem already," he said. "We would really like to see the parameters to be much more specific and tighter, and to examine all the effects."
Steve Erickson, a founder of the Whidbey Environmental Action Network (WEAN), challenged the language of the proposed amendment, calling it, in many instances, vague. He added that the site variance provisions do not adequately assess the environmental impact of the proliferation of impervious surfaces, despite the county's claims that such impacts had already been dealt with by such agencies as SEPA and the state Department of Ecology.
"We're very disturbed by what appears to be a ritualized mantra," Erickson said. "As this is written, it just throws the door open for something that is already a problem. My suggestion is to pitch this."
Marianne Edain, also of WEAN, had a similar recommendation, saying that passing the amendment "would be a really grave error." She suggested that further environmental review of the proposed amendment needs to be done before the board considers approving the ordinance.
"We need to set a countywide limit on how much impervious land we can have in any watershed," said Edain.
County officials, however, had a different take on what the ordinance would mean for future county development. Planning manager Jeff Tate said the amendment is actually more restrictive than before. He said it simply gives the planning department the ability to review site coverage applications according to standards that are already in place. Prior to this, the county has not had the capacity to proceed on processing site variance requests.
"The amendment doesn't allow something that isn't already allowed by code," Tate said.
Addressing Erickson's allegations that the language of the amendment was vague, Tate said such language is warranted in that it highlights issues that are still referred to in the text of the comprehensive plan. By encouraging interpretation, Tate said, the flexibility in the language of the amendment encourages cooperation between the county and developers.
Commissioner Bill Thorn agreed that the amendment tightens the standards by which site variance requests are processed.
"It seems to me that this makes a lot of sense," Thorn said.
Thorn did express regret that the planning department failed to come forward with a firmer recommendation to the board to accept the new ordinance.
Commissioner Mac McDowell also said the proposed ordinance tightens up variance standards. He said the amendment "puts sideboards on that weren't there before." He disagreed with Erickson's assessment that the environmental impacts of the amendment were not well-established, adding that any changes met with standards set out by SEPA.
The amendment passed only after some language was changed, clarifying the fact that site variance provisions are granted only once, disallowing repeated variance requests and therefore an incremental expansion of impervious surfaces in a given development.