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Washington Supreme Court backs state's authority for final approval on shoreline master programs

The Washington state Supreme Court today unanimously affirmed that the state, not local governments, has final authority in approving shoreline management plans and regulations.

The case was brought before the high court by Citizens for Rational Shoreline Planning, Ronald Jepson and the Building Industry Association of Whatcom County against the state Department of Ecology and Whatcom County.

The lawsuit was an attempt to broadly invalidate key protections in Whatcom County's state-approved shoreline planning and development regulations, also known as a shoreline master program. Ecology approved the county's shoreline program in 2008.

San Juan County is in early stages of a state-required update of its shoreline master program.

The plaintiffs asserted that because Whatcom County had developed its proposed shoreline master program at the local level, final approval of the county's updated shoreline program was a local decision.

They claimed some of the requirements in Whatcom County's shoreline program would violate state tax law generally prohibiting local governments from imposing certain taxes or fees in exchange for development rights.

The 1972 voter-approved Shoreline Management Act was passed to help minimize environmental damage to shoreline areas, reserve appropriate areas for water-oriented uses, and protect the public's right to public lands and waters.

"The court's decision clarifies that the collaborative process Ecology and local governments use to manage our shoreline areas is fair, transparent and flexible," Ecology Deputy Director Polly Zehm said in a prepared statement. "We all have a stake in protecting our treasured shoreline resources for ourselves as well as our children and future generations. Our shorelines make Washington a great place to live."

Under the law, local governments and Ecology work cooperatively on shoreline master programs.

The Shoreline Management Act gives local governments flexibility to tailor their shoreline programs to help respond to local conditions and needs — while fulfilling the statewide vision for shoreline development, protection and uses.

However, the court's decision recognizes that under state law Ecology is tasked with final review and approval authority to ensure each shoreline master program meets state law.

Ecology must also ensure that state requirements negotiated in 2003 among 58 different parties, including business interests, ports, environmental groups, shoreline user groups and local governments, are being met.

Once Ecology approves a local shoreline master program, the department will help defend the decision against legal challenges.

The plaintiffs' case had previously been dismissed by a Skagit County Superior Court judge, a decision which was later upheld by the state Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court ruling affirms the decision of the appellate court.

 

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