Shoreline Management rule rewrite makes waves

A long-range planning document that will dictate how development moves forward on shorelines in rural Island County over the next 20 years will be the focus of a series of public meetings beginning next week.

Justin Burnett / The Record | Mike McVay, founder of Island Citizens For Public Beach Access, sits at the head of Marrisa Lane, a 20-foot wide public beach access on South Whidbey. He is one of many who are advocating for public beach access in Island County’s update of its Shoreline Master Program. The document will guide new and existing  development for years to come and will be the focus of a series of public meetings that begin next week. A long-range planning document that will dictate how development moves forward on shorelines in rural Island County over the next 20 years will be the focus of a series of public meetings beginning next week.

County planning officials and the Planning Commission recently completed a comprehensive update of the shoreline master program and their recommendations have been forwarded to the Island County commissioners for review and approval.

Before the board takes action in November, the updated rules are to be discussed at public meetings on Whidbey and Camano.

The first begins at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 9, and will be held in Grigware Hall at Trinity Lutheran Church in Freeland. The second meeting will be held the following week at 6 p.m. Monday, Oct. 15 in the Commissioner’s Hearing Room in Coupeville and the third is scheduled to take place the next day, Oct. 16, on Camano Island.

Described as an overhaul to the existing shoreline master program, which was first drafted more than 30 years ago, the update is state mandated and will impact both new and existing development, said Karen Stewart, program coordinator with Island County Planning and Community Development.

“It’s a major rewrite,” she said.

The rules, which apply to all development within 200 feet upland of the ordinary high-water mark and six lakes in Island County, were first drafted in 1976 in response to the state Shoreline Management Act. It was passed by the state Legislature in 1971 and adopted by voters the following year.

Guidelines with advancements in science and best management practices were adopted in 2003 and all municipalities, from cities to counties, were required to update their plans with the new state standards.

Stewart, a specialist who has worked on five other updates, was hired in 2010 to lead the county in the revision process. Over the past two years, the document has been worked by a technical advisory group, the planning commission and been talked about in at least 15 public meetings.

A host of issues and concerns from the community have been broached through the process but cries for dedicated or reclaimed public beach accesses have been by far the loudest.

Mike McVay, founder of Island Citizens For Public Beach Access, has been one of those leading the charge. In testimony to the planning commission, he advocated that the rule update should place greater emphasis on the reclamation of beach access points that have been either lost to or stolen by private property owners.

“These issues, which have not been adequately addressed in prior legislation, need to be included in the SMP update as important, high-priority elements of the update process,” he wrote in a letter to the commissioners. “Effective measures designed to rectify these conditions need to be formulated and undertaken. They cannot be ignored.”

Stewart said they have taken public beach access concerns to heart and spent a considerable amount of time working to update the county’s list of sites, from those already established to those that remain in question.

“This has been the most detailed public access inventory that I’ve worked on,” she said.

The effort is not over. Stewart said a finalized list could not be completed due to a lack of resources and time. It will have to continue in years to come.

There were some who wanted the rules to take a tough stance on encroachment. Specifically, the planning commission considered a request to increase violation from a civil to criminal offense.

Bob Pederson, director of Island County Planning and Community Development, confirmed that his department recommended the planning commission not take such an aggressive position.

The levying of civil penalties is the traditional approach to encroachment, he said. Also, encroachment isn’t always a case of nefarious intent. Sometimes it’s as simple as people putting a mail box in the wrong spot and they should not be penalized with a criminal record, he said.

Other concerns about public beach access centered on new construction. Under the new rules, developments with five homes or more must look at putting in an access but it’s not an outright requirement.

“It’s a requirement to consider it,” Pederson said.

He explained that not all properties are equal and some places, such as those located in critical areas or on a bluff, may make a mandatory beach access inappropriate. Also, it’s the shoreline planning official who makes the ultimate decision, not the developer, he said.

Others worry that the new rules are too restrictive, particularly when it comes to older structures. A home that was permitted under past regulations may become non-conforming under the new rules, making changes in the future difficult or even impossible in some cases, said Jeff White, a Clinton small business owner who does private residential design and permit work.

Some properties may lose value as a result and may lead to frustrated residents taking matters in their own hands.

“In the worst case scenarios, you’ll have people doing outlaw stuff,” White said.

“The county has to take some responsibility for properties and developments they have permitted in the past,” he said.

There are many instances where existing development could be affected. The rules will impact how bulkheads, piers and stairs to beaches can be maintained or repaired. Even mooring buoys for anchored boats are addressed in the new rules.

Representatives from several commercial interests also voiced concerns about the update. Ian Jefferds of Penn Cove Shellfish and Diani Taylor of Shelton-based Taylor Shellfish Farms both submitted written comments concerning aquaculture and the Skagit/Island Counties Builders Association, commonly referred to as SICBA, complained about host of issues, from public access and buffer requirements to sections pertaining to shoreline armoring and bulkhead repair.

Even some elected officials worry the rules may go too far. Port of South Whidbey Commissioner Dennis Gregoire recently wrote to Stewart about the limitations the update may place on the improvement of boat ramps, which he described as “historic public access points to public waters.”

“It looks to me the Shoreline Management Act has become the shoreline protection act,” Gregoire wrote. “Based on my 30 years of dealing with shoreline planning and waterfront development, I see a very bleak future for any development providing public access through boating facilities along Island County’s shorelines.”

Pederson said the update was a major endeavor and is not surprised that the balanced approach taken by its drafters has resulted in some concern from the public.

This is not a one size fits all document, he said, but is an attempt to balance both the direction from the state and the needs of Whidbey Island’s rural community. Overall, he said he is content with the result.

Also, there is still plenty of time to learn about just what is being proposed, submit comments and make changes before its goes before the board of commissioners for adoption.

“We haven’t even started the public hearing process,” Stewart said.

After next week’s workshop meetings, the board will begin to review the proposed update and request any changes. The public hearing in which they might take action is tentatively scheduled for Nov. 5.