Council endorses San Juan Initiative report; document will guide local involvement in restoration of Sound’s health by 2020

Bold. Unique. Innovative. A model for the rest of the state.

There was no shortage of superlatives as the County Council gave a hearty endorsement to the San Juan Initiative and its final report and list of recommendations.

To what extent those recommendations can be woven into the fabric of local development rules remains to be seen.

But in a 6-0 decision, the council on Dec. 9 adopted the report and recommendations as a blueprint for future regulatory changes and a guide in setting priorities for local salmon recovery efforts.

Among the many accolades, it could well be what some cite as a “common sense” approach toward land-use rules and a distaste for “one size fits all” shoreline regulations that are responsible for the support the initiative now enjoys.

Even early skeptics have become converts.

“I don’t see it as bold, I see it as common sense,” Councilman Rich Peterson, San Juan North, said of the final report. “But if government has to be bold to use common sense, then let’s be bold.”

Launched two years ago, the San Juan Initiative is part of Gov. Christine Gregoire’s Puget Sound Initiative, a commitment to restoring the health of the state’s inland marine waters by 2020. That effort is chaired by Bill Ruckleshaus, 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.

The goal of the initiative is to improve ecosystem protection without stripping the community of its ability to prosper, while at the same time establishing a process which other Puget Sound communities can follow. The final report follows on the heels of an in-depth study into the health of the islands’ marine habitat and a two-year evaluation into what’s working, what’s not, and what opportunities exist for improving the many layers of local, state and federal rules that affect the county’s 400-plus miles of shoreline.

Peterson, who noted his misgivings early on about the initiative, credits its leaders and technical team, as well as community members who contributed to the process, for recognizing that different shorelines might benefit from different regulatory measures depending upon their unique geological features.

Topping the list of recommendations is a “tailored” approach to shoreline protection depending on unique attributes, such as steep sandy slopes versus low-lying waterfronts made up mostly of hardened rock. Greater accountability, meaning measures which ensure that citizens adhere to local rules and government enforces them, is included as well. Pending revisions of the county's critical areas ordinance and shoreline master plan are likely arenas where the recommendations could come into play.

“In recommending this tailored approach we are advocating a move away from ‘one size fits all’ thinking, focusing instead on what will work best for each stretch of shoreline,” the policy group states in its final report.

The process, according to Councilman Kevin Ranker, San Juan South, one of the initiative’s key architects, is as important as the conclusions the final report contains. It relied on the cooperation and expertise of a policy group, consisting of 13 islanders, working in collaboration with 10 different agencies — federal, state, tribal and local — and with input from a team of six scientists and eight local policy experts.

He hopes to see the process replicated throughout Puget Sound.

“It’s big step and a bold step,” Ranker said. “This is a model for the rest of the state and it’s exciting that San Juan County is putting this forward.”

Orcas Island’s Patty Miller, a member of the policy group and the critical areas ordinance citizen-review committee, includes herself among the initiative’s early skeptics. She said she’s had a change of heart.

The initiative, she said, advocates a blending of education, incentives, regulatory measures and penalties in a manner first envisioned by the state Growth Management Act, but which has been lacking locally.

“This has been a unique process for a unique community with a unique problem,” Miller said.

The final report marks only the “end of the beginning” for the initiative, according to Amy Windrope, project coordinator. She said that the next steps include finding funding to implement the recommendations, exporting the process to other communities and evaluating the health of the ecosystem upland from the waterfront.

“It’s only a pilot project if you apply it somewhere else,” Windrope noted.

Still, she believes odds are good that the momentum stirred by the initiative will continue to pick up steam. She said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which helped bankroll the two-year marine habitat evaluation, has asked that a process modeled on the initiative be applied to the islands’ so-called “terrestrial,” or upland, habitats.

Though hurdles remain, Windrope noted the initiative now has a track record of defying its skeptics.

“To me, it’s pretty exciting,” she said. “Hearing people saying they didn’t really know what it was about and having doubts, and then getting such an enthusiastic endorsement, that was like money in the bank for me.”


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