Review shows lack of follow-up on San Juan County dock permits

When Tom Cowan served on the San Juan County Commission from 1982-94, the county had two code enforcement officers to make sure projects were developed as approved in the permits.

“If a crisis came up, we had more employee capacity,” Cowan said.

But of the Community Development and Planning Department’s 25 employees today, only one is devoted to code enforcement.

“It’s hard to do the right thing when there is no penalty for those who do not,” said Patty Miller, a member of the San Juan Initiative Policy Group. If a builder turns down a job that doesn’t meet county code, he or she knows that the project will still be built by someone else, she said. “No one’s going to stand behind me.”

The Policy Group reviewed 19 dock permits in Mitchell Bay, Garrison Bay, the east side of West Sound, east side of Stuart Island and the northeast corner of Lopez Island. The group found that half of the docks did not match conditions of their permits. Eight dock floats were, on average, 52 feet larger than allowed.

“To get a dock permit, you have to go through four agencies,” Cowan said. “But no one inspects the docks (after they are built).” In addition, code exemptions lack environmental review, he said.

The Policy Group discussed its report, “An Assessment of Ecosystem Protection: What’s Working, What’s Not,” Thursday in Mullis Community Senior Center. The San Juan Initiative is part of Gov. Christine Gregoire’s Puget Sound Initiative, a commitment to restore the health of our marine waters by 2020.

The effort is chaired by Bill Ruckelshaus, a part-time San Juan Island resident who served twice as director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, as well as assistant U.S. attorney general and FBI director.

In the report, Policy Group members were struck by a lack of accountability at the local level, as well as a low level of compliance with permit conditions.

Ruckelshaus suggested the lack of follow-through in the county’s permit process is a “culture problem,” he said.

County Councilman Kevin Ranker, San Juan South, said the county doesn’t have the resources in place to monitor permit compliance.

“All of our agencies are working at 110 percent,” Ranker said. “(Builders) get a county permit and that’s the end of it. We have to circle back.”

Penalties for non-compliance with development regulations received the most votes as an “opportunity for improvement” in previous Policy Group meetings. “… rules without enforcement don’t work,” a report states.

But Policy Group members see education as a critical part of the solution as well. “(The) Policy Group felt strongly that we can’t increase enforcement without a commensurate increase in technical assistance and education to trade groups,” a report states.

The Policy Group is proposing a system of programs that include:

— Provide technical assistance and relevant science to property owners, trade professionals and agency staff so that people can make better decisions.

— Reduce duplication in the permit review process for shoreline vegetation and shoreline armoring by increasing clarity in the regulations and streamlining administrative practices.

— Develop a community-supported system for inspections and compliance.

— Provide incentives for owners of smaller properties to retain vegetation and control erosion with lower impact solutions.

— Provide incentives and information to trade professionals to more effectively mitigate environmental impacts and address property owners’ interests.

Jim Kramer, a Policy Group staff member, added, “A lot of people don’t realize that if you don’t have forage fish habitat, you don’t have fish ... We need better education about how important our area is.”

The policy group is determining the direction of the San Juan Initiative’s next phase — development of solutions to the core issues raised in its assessment of ecosystem protection.”

From now until December, the policy group will work with the community on developing a final plan. For more information about upcoming meetings, and to review the report, visit

About the report
The report points to the progress islanders have made in ecosystem protection efforts – and how those efforts can be a model for the restoration of the entire Puget Sound ecosystem.

But it also shows that shoreline alterations are occurring in some of the most ecologically sensitive areas of the islands, putting critical habitat at risk. And it makes clear that land-use incentives aren’t well designed to help most property owners, and shows that environmental protection programs at times are in conflict and create confusion for those trying to do the right thing.

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