WEAN loses appeals on comp plan

Island County won a decisive legal victory Thursday in its push to finalize the county's comprehensive land-use plan.

In what Commissioner Mac McDowell called "a clean sweep," visiting Whatcom County Judge David Nichols decided in favor of Island County on a series of legal issues presented Monday in Island County Superior Court.

"People now have a final answer on what our county land management rules will be over the next couple of years," McDowell said. "The court has made its ruling that what we did is certainly lawful. It's a big day for the public."

It wasn't a big day for everyone. Members of the Whidbey Environmental Action Network saw several appeals they made to the county's comprehensive plan struck down after years of challenges.

"To understate the matter completely, we're very disappointed," WEAN co-founder Marianne Edain said Thursday.

She and the other WEAN co-founder, Steve Erickson, plan to go over the ruling soon and decide their next action.

In court, the county was a winner on a number of legal points. Nichols upheld three appeals by the county to the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board. The court also upheld the hearings board on three land use plan issues appealed by WEAN.

The state's 1991 Growth Management Act requires counties to pass comprehensive plans that allow future urban growth while providing environmental protection, largely through zoning laws. Until now, Island County's plan has been snarled in a number of legal appeals regarding issues such as wetland protection, rural zoning densities and agricultural practices.

In his decisions, Nichols reversed the hearings board ruling that the county's exemption for "existing and ongoing" agriculture violates the GMA's critical areas ordinance. He upheld the county's use of best management practices, essentially allowing older agricultural practices to be grandfathered into the county's comprehensive plan.

Also granted was Island County's appeal regarding buffers for Category B wetlands and Type 5 streams. The decision reversed the hearings board ruling that 25-foot buffers proposed by the county do not comply with the requirement for use of the best available science.

Nichols also denied WEAN's appeals of existing buffers for some larger streams and of rural densities zoning. Buffers for Type 4 streams will remain at 50 feet, while Type 3 stream buffers remain at 75 and 100 feet, with the larger buffer going to salmon streams. The court also upheld current rural densities zoning, which allows one residence per every five acres.

The decisions bring Island County one step closer to having a complete and finalized Comp Plan as mandated by the GMA. However, Nichols' rulings do not take effect immediately; an order must first be prepared and served on the hearings board.

Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks, who represented the county, said Thursday he was pleased with the rulings.

"The judge's decision clearly bears out our analysis on the issue," he said.

After the decision, McDowell had more praise -- for Keith Dearborn, the attorney originally hired by the county to help draw up the comprehensive plan.

McDowell was critical of WEAN for what he called the group's "uncompromising" attitude.

"One person can't control the county," he said.

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