Environmental issues put on hold until new comprehensive plan

A beaver lodge sits at the southern edge of Miller Lake

Island County wants to address some contentious environmental-protection issues when it releases its new comprehensive plan by June 1, 2016, and not before, according to a Monday filing with the state’s Growth Management Hearings Board.

The filing is the latest development in a long-running suit by Whidbey Environmental Action Network (or WEAN). Released in response to a June 2015 demand by the Hearings Board, the filing lays out the county’s schedule for addressing several environmental-protection shortcomings in its forthcoming comprehensive plan.

Work on the long-range planning document includes reviewing how the county deals with “critical areas” — shorthand for all varieties of locale and wildlife that require some measure of environmental protection — and with how such protection is reconciled with meeting agricultural needs, said interim planning director Keith Higman in a declaration attached to the county’s response.

Among the case’s issues are fish-and-wildlife habitat matters involving the definition of “reasonable use,” the county’s approach to beaver dams, natural-area preserve buffers, rare plants and plant habitat, the Western toad and protection exemptions dealing with agriculture, Higman wrote.

The county has received a $250,000 grant from the National Estuary Program/Puget Sound Watershed Protection and Restoration program to help fund its critical-areas review, he wrote. It has hired Environmental Science Associates, supported by Pacific Groundwater Group and the Stratum Group, to help in that review.

The fish-and-wildlife issues litigated in this case are receiving attention, he wrote. A 13-member technical advisory group will review the county’s treatment of critical areas, even though that measure is “unnecessary,” he wrote.

Draft reports on the case’s issues and the county’s overall critical-areas policy are set to be issued by early December, Higman wrote, and the advisory group’s review of those reports is set for completion in January 2016. Public hearings will take place in February through April 2016, and the commissioners’ review and decision will be completed by June 1.

The Hearings Board should not seek to review the comprehensive plan’s new critical-areas provisions separately from the rest of the document, because that would take them out of context, Higman urged.

The county’s prosecuting attorney wrote that the response substituted for the required Dec. 18 status report and that no further response would be forthcoming, unless ordered, until the next required report date of Feb. 15, 2016.

The county’s response complied with the Nov. 10 deadline the Hearings Board set in an Oct. 26 order. That order followed a June 24, 2015 decision saying the county had until June 25, 2016, to bring its regulations into compliance with the state’s Growth Management Act.

That law requires counties and cities to update their comprehensive plans every eight years, ensuring that regulations both keep pace with ever-changing state requirements and reflect local priorities. The plan, intended to cover the 20 years after its issuance, allows for growth while protecting the environment. It is meant to reflect changes and anticipated changes in land use, housing, population growth, water, sewage, parks, schools, parks and recreation, transportation and shorelines.

Island County adopted its first comprehensive plan in 1998. It completed its most recent periodic review and update in 2005.