Peterson 'encouraged' by prospect of tailoring shoreline, wetland setbacks

Top photo, Richard Mraz, a wetlands specialist with the state Department of Ecology, talks science with the panel and audience at the public meeting regarding proposed changes to the county
Top photo, Richard Mraz, a wetlands specialist with the state Department of Ecology, talks science with the panel and audience at the public meeting regarding proposed changes to the county's Critical Areas Ordinance, Tuesday in the San Juan Community Theatre. Middle photo, County Council members Gene Knapp, Richard Fralick, Rich Peterson and Bob Myhr review data. Bottom photo, members of the audience listen to the information being presented.
— image credit: Scott Rasmussen

San Juan County Council Chairman Rich Peterson came away encouraged from the council-sponsored workshop on possible changes to the county's critical areas and shoreline regulations, Tuesday in the San Juan Community Theatre.

Peterson, North San Juan, said that before the workshop — which spanned nearly four hours — he was discouraged that the county appeared to be "boxed in" by state and federal guidelines that call for bigger buffers between development, shorelines and wetlands. He believes a set of locally tailored regulations on development near critical areas and shorelines may now have a chance.

"I think what I heard from people on the panel today is that there may be a little more flexibility than I was thinking we might have," Peterson said. "But we have to be able to show we've done our homework and have the science to back it up."

That backup could come in the form of the San Juan Initiative, which is recommending shoreline protections tailored for this area, and teaming with the county on public outreach to educate islanders about changes to critical areas and shoreline regulations.

The Critical Areas Ordinance is being revised in compliance with provisions of the Growth Management Act. Work is also beginning on the updated Shoreline Master Plan, due in 2012.

The most debated issue is the minimum distance that new development should be set back from the shoreline. State regulations and some scientists have suggested a need to increase development setbacks to as much as 150 or 200 feet from the shoreline. Real estate and development interests in San Juan County say those setbacks are extreme and that such requirements could cost the county millions of dollars in lost property value and property taxes.

About 150 islanders attended Tuesday's workshop, which featured a 10-person panel of agency officials, attorneys, and local, state and federal scientists. The audience thinned as time wore on, and a 90-minute power outage didn't help. Still, about half of the audience hung in there till the end.

The panel fielded about a dozen written questions from the audience.

The San Juan Initiative is a local component of the larger Puget Sound Initiative, charged by Gov. Christine Gregoire to improve Puget Sound's health by 2020. Amy Windrope, executive director of the San Juan Initiative, said the policy group wants regulations tailored for this county, understanding that buffers and setbacks adopted elsewhere may not be appropriate here.

Windrope said the policy group wants to focus protection efforts in areas most sensitive to change, and that regulations would be tailored on whether an area of shoreline is either "rocky or beachy." She said one problem with existing regulations is the lack of education about what property owners can do on their properties and why.

"Our current regulations are based on aesthetic principles and not ecological principles," she said. "So, we're requiring property owners to maintain their vegetation on how it looks, not what it does." She said one-third of the feeder bluffs in the county have been bulkheaded.

An example of how buffers and setbacks could be applied: "If you have a beach and you remove all your trees, you're further back," she said. "If you're in a rocky area and you don't have a lot of slope, and you have a lot of trees, you're closer. And we very carefully spend a lot of energy figuring out what can you do in that buffer," like defining a way to keep a well-distributed stand of vegetation within that buffer area.

The county is now negotiating the contract for a $400,000 grant from the state Department of Ecology to help fund the Shoreline Master Plan updating process. That process will include an effort to create a “tailored” approach to establishing setbacks based on various factors, including the composition and topography of the shoreline, and the amount of tree and vegetative cover between the development and the shoreline.

Among the key points presented Tuesday:

— More than one panelist said buffers and setbacks proposed by the departments of Ecology and Fish and Wildlife are based on best guesses regarding wildlife habitat needs. They said those recommendations conflict with the rights of property owners.

"I think it's time that instead of trying to regulate people, control people, we start answering some of these questions with well-designed studies so that we know what we're talking about and we don't have to make guesses, which is what Ecology did, with respect to what the wildlife habitat needs are of certain species," a panelist said.

— Paul Anderson, a toxic studies expert with the state Department of Ecology, said his department's best available science and "best guess" have been through legal review by the Growth Management Hearings Board and the state's courts and "it has been consistently upheld."

More meetings are planned.

Tuesday at 5:30 p.m., state Supreme Court Justice Richard Sanders will speak on property rights and the Constitution at the next meeting of the Citizens Alliance for Property Rights San Juan, in the San Juan Island Grange. Donations will be accepted. The dinner menu: Barbecued tri tip, garlic bread, potato, salad, and coffee, tea and water.

Seating is limited. To RSVP, call Minnie Knych, 378-4662 (office) or 378-7040 (home); or e-mail

Since taking his position on the Supreme Court in 1995, Sanders has served as an adjunct professor teaching appellate advocacy at the University of Washington School of Law, written for professional journals, and presented lectures to civic and legal organizations on diverse topics, including civil liberties, land use, legal ethics and the state Constitution.

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