Buffer variations suggested at meeting

The right to develop on personal property versus protecting the environment is likely a touchy subject among many South Whidbey residents. One example of that tension is stream and wetland buffers.

Using strict criteria from the best scientific evidence available in 1998, the county determined that depending on vegetation type, land zoning and land acreage size, landowners may not develop anywhere from 25 to 100 feet from a designated wetland. The distances, or buffer zones, reflected the best available science at the time which showed substances could be filtered between the developed property and the wetland, said Jeff Tate, assistant planning director for Island County.

The rules are part of the Critical Areas Ordinance passed by the county in 1999. The ordinance addresses dual purposes, Tate said. It protects the environment and personal property rights.

With the Critical Areas Ordinance under review this year, however, Dyanne Sheldon, a wetland ecologist, said the strict system used by the county may need changes.

Her suggestions were making the dimensions of buffers more subjective to each wetland, changing the county’s rating system and modifying the compensatory mitigation.

She also said the county receives compensation, such as the person restoring a historical habitat or enhancing a buffer area. That would apply for anyone who either performs an illegal action in a wetland or who will impact a wetland with a proposed action.

They are suggested changes to the Critical Areas Ordinance, which one county official said has met with a mixed reaction even with the borders now in place.

Some do not support setting aside their land while other landowners understand the need to protect wetland areas, said Justin Craven, Island County’s critical areas planner. However, county officials say an advantage of the rigid wetland structure is that it is easier for the three-member county staff that enforces it to understand. It is also easier to educate landowners on the rules because of the rigid rules used by the county.

But in the view of Sheldon, those rigid standards do not follow what the latest science shows best preserves wetlands.

“One size does not fit all,” she said at the Lyceum meeting Tuesday.

Instead, buffers of variable sizes are needed to better protect the environment, she said. What happens in one wetland, such as building development, effects the adjacent wetlands and watersheds as a whole, Sheldon said.

“The more intense and potentially harmful the activity, the greater the setback,” she said. That especially holds true as residential development in the county increasingly takes up open space.

Sheldon said the wetland rating system used by the county needs expanding to include factors such as potential development, habitat complexity and physical attributes of the wetland.

Craven said natural designated wetlands are presently separated into categories. Whether the lands are zoned for rural or non-rural use, if native or non-native vegetation grows in the wetland and the size of the property.

Although she said she does not know how the county will decide to change the size of buffers, Sheldon said the county may need to approve permits on a case-by-case basis.

Craven said if that does happen, it may slow down the permit process because the county’s three member staff would need to spend more time to approve permits.

But he added that he doesn’t disagree with Sheldon’s view that one size does not fit all. To make the change to the variable system, however, the most current science, called Best Available Science, must show that variable buffers are necessary to clean out the water.

To determine that, he said Paul Adamus is examining wetland and stream buffers throughout the county. The county hired Adamus earlier this year to conduct the research for the update.

All of Sheldon’s suggestions were made during the final meeting of the Lyceum lecture series Tuesday. The six-week series, which mixed artistic performances with scientific lectures, was intended to provide attendees with more in depth information about Critical Areas Ordinance topics such as bluffs, forests and wetlands. Lyceum organizers from the Whidbey Institute wanted attendees to use that knowledge to provide more informed input to changes in the Critical Areas Ordinance.

Tate said the county plans to complete the Critical Areas Ordinance by February 2006.

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