150-foot setbacks? Won’t happen

State Supreme Court decision takes issue out of CAO group’s hands

The Critical Areas Ordinance Review Committee will drop proposed changes to building setbacks near shorelines after the state Supreme Court ruled those decisions fall under the Shoreline Management Act, not the Growth Management Act.

The committee was considering possible revisions to building setbacks near shorelines — from 50 feet to 150 feet or more — which some property owners felt was not scientifically based and could hurt property values. (See letter to the editor, “A blow to private property rights,” page 6A, today’s Journal.)

The committee was reviewing the county’s Critical Areas Ordinance in accordance with the GMA. But the state’s high court ruling — a 5-4 decision — takes setbacks off the committee’s plate.

The committee’s Aug. 5 meeting drew its largest audience to date, thanks, in part, to the court’s decision and because of fliers which appeared recently in numerous mailboxes warning of tougher shoreline setbacks.

The court’s decision marks a significant change in direction for the appointed group of nine volunteers, County Planner Shireene Hale said.

The committee, she said, has toiled over reams of scientific data and studies in recent months to prepare recommended changes it felt would better protect local shorelines and nearshore habitat.

“It’s a huge shift in focus for us,” Hale said. “It looks like this committee will not be looking at changes to shoreline buffers.”

But the Supreme Court decision, according to Prosecuting Attorney Randy Gaylord, means the committee should “refocus” its direction inland and wait for the ruling to “work itself out.”

The court, Gaylord said, determined that a law passed by the state Legislature in 2003 means shoreline critical areas are governed by the state Shoreline Management Act as well as local shoreline master programs, rather than by the GMA, the foundation of the Critical Areas Ordinance.

State law requires that counties which plan under the state GMA, like San Juan, periodically update their Critical Areas Ordinance. Critical areas, as defined by the GMA, include wetlands, critical aquifer recharge areas, fish and wildlife habitat, unstable slopes and flood zones. Updates must be done through the use of “best available science.”

Counties are also required to update their shoreline master programs periodically as well. Hale said that update would be expected by 2012. However, that update is nowhere on the “radar screen” at the Community Development and Planning Department largely because it lacks the money, resources and staff which such an update will likely demand, Hale said.

For information about the Critical Areas Ordinance process, visit “Community Development and Planning” on

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