Mixed ruling on CAO; Hearings Board strikes down 10 pieces of controversial update

San Juan County will be headed back to the drawing board with its critical areas ordinance.

In a decision handed down Sept. 6, the Washington state Growth Management Hearings Board determined that while much of the ordinance satisfies goals of the state Growth Management Act, there remain 10 elements of the controversial revision of the county CAO that do not comply with state law.

From buffers widths to best available science, and from wetland water quality protection to exemptions allowed for utilities in public and private right-of-ways, 10 portions of the CAO will need to be revisited and reconstructed as a result of the Hearings Board ruling.

In spite of the shortcomings, Prosecuting Attorney Randy Gaylord said the ruling is a welcomed result.

“Overall, this is a positive ruling for the county,” Gaylord said in a press release. “The Growth Board upheld the county’s extraordinary public participation process, the method of identifying and designating critical areas, and the site-specific approach to calculating buffer sizes.”

The 1990 Growth Management Act and 1998 amendments to the GMA mandated that local governments prepare and periodically review comprehensive plans and development regulations, especially in five designated critical areas. Those areas are specified as aquifer recharge areas, geologically hazardous areas, frequently flooded areas, fish and wildlife habitat conservation areas, and wetlands.

The 1998 amendments specified that a “Best Available Science” standard must be incorporated into CAO plans and regulations.

Approved by the County Council in December, the change in land-use rules initiated through the state-required CAO update have yet to be implemented on the ground. The council in April postponed putting the rules into effect until March 2014 in part because of complexity of the new set of regulations and pending litigation.

Five different groups filed lawsuits contesting various elements of the CAO after the new set of rules were approved by the council. Gaylord noted that those lawsuits, filed by Common Sense Alliance, P.J. Taggares Company, William Wright, San Juan Builders Association and Friends of the San Juans, together raised 90 different issues that were ruled upon by the Hearings Board.

In the end, the hearing boards sided with 10 points contested by Friends of the San Juans.

“The Growth Board’s decision gives the county another opportunity to adequately protect critical areas like wetlands, streams, and shorelines," Friends Executive Director Stephanie Buffum said. "Although we disagree with some portions of the decision, we agree with the Growth Board that the islands’ fish and wildlife need realistic buffers for clean water and habitat to house them."

The local environmental advocacy group will be examining the ruling closely and weighing its options, Buffum said.

The ruling by the hearings board can be contested by any party involved in the litigation. The county will have until March 5 to revised the elements of the CAO that don't comply with state law; a compliance hearing is slated for April 24.

“These dates work well because the existing ordinances will become effective on March 1, 2014," Gaylord said.

A copy of the Hearings Board decision can be downloaded at, (, or by contacting Elizabeth Halsey at the prosecutor’s office at 360-378-4101 or



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