San Juan County ponders best route for Critical Areas Ordinance research

San Juan County may be headed back to the beginning in an effort to resolve a long-running tug of war over the pending revision of its Critical Areas Ordinance.

But where a cash-strapped county can come up with the money to pay for scientific studies that are unique to the islands remains to be seen.

Still, the County Council last week agreed that financing a series of local studies might be well worth the investment. Council members noted that's the course Island County took to produce an assortment of regulatory alternatives that deviated from the state's "best available science," many of which passed muster in the state approval process.

County Councilman Rich Peterson, North San Juan, said the council must consider what steps it can take over the next several months to boost confidence in the community in the CAO process and the direction it's heading. Following in Island County's footsteps might be the best solution, he said.

At its Jan. 5 meeting, the council heard nearly an hour of criticism from a standing-room-only crowd, who, with few exceptions, collectively questioned the need and the reason behind a series of proposed changes in the so-called "upland portion" of the CAO.

"We may need to dig into a difficult place, the budget, if we can't find outside funding," Peterson said. "But I don't know of anything else, other than public safety, that's more important to the county right now."

The county set out to revise its Critical Areas Ordinance nearly three years ago. As revisions go, it's proven to be as convoluted and controversial as they come.

Supporters say greater regulatory protections are needed to protect critical areas — such as geologically hazardous areas, shorelines, streams, wetlands, and wildlife habitat — from development. Critics say there's little evidence to support the push for expanded buffers and building setbacks, and point to a lack of scientific evidence to support greater restrictions on the development of private property.

The upland portion of the CAO is expected to be revised sometime this year. The shoreline portion will be updated with the pending revision of the county Shoreline Master Program, which is due for state review by 2012.

Councilman Howie Rosenfeld, Friday Harbor, sees merit in the argument of those who insist that the islands, at least environmentally, are in "pretty good shape." He believes regulatory changes need not be extreme and favors a tailored approach in determining buffer sizes and setbacks as recommended by the San Juan Initiative.

"The tailored approach is something I think is very smart," he said. "If it takes a little more time and money, it's well worth it."

According to Prosecuting Attorney Randy Gaylord, the CAO must be revised through the lens of "best available science." That wasn't the case, he noted, when the Sensitive Areas Ordinance (which was later renamed as the CAO) was first crafted and implemented in 1998.

Though it may not end the controversy, Gaylord said the council has the authority to create a list of studies and scientific materials which can be used as the official playbook of the CAO update. But how the council would do that isn't as clear.

"That's a good question," he said.

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