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Hearing on barge landings' future April 27; Friends of San Juans asks state to invalidate Essential Public Facilities Ordinance

The San Juan County Council has given tentative approval to changes in local shoreline rules in which three publicly-owned barge landings would be designated as essential public facilities, setting the stage for their expansion.

As a result, islanders can expect a new chapter to emerge in a long-running tug-of-war over use of the former Friday Harbor Sand and Gravel site and its stretch of waterfront on Griffin Bay.

On April 13, the council voted without dissent to move a series of potential changes to the county’s Shoreline Essential Public Facilities Rules, a section of the Comprehensive Plan, forward to a public hearing April 27.

Essential Public Facilities designation would allow the barge-landing sites at Obstruction Pass, Odlin Park and Griffin Bay to expand beyond the regulatory constraints that currently apply to each.

The amount of activity allowed at each barge landing is limited to its historical use. The county would need to obtain a conditional use permit to expand the activity at the barge landings. An environmental impact study would be required at the Griffin Bay site.

“We’re not objecting to the non-conforming use,” said Dr. Chris Clarke of the Griffin Bay Preservation Committee. “What we’re objecting to is giving (Public Works) a de facto permit for intensifying that use dramatically.”

On April 14, the Friends of the San Juans petitioned the Western Growth Management Hearings Board to invalidate San Juan County’s Upland Essential Public Facilities Ordinance, adopted by the County Council on Feb. 9.

San Juan County Prosecutor Randall Gaylord reviewed the petition and said, “Boiled to its basic premise, the Friends are saying that the county ordinance should establish a priority which favors resource land and critical areas over new essential public facilities or the expansion of existing essential public facilities.

“I would argue that the GMA does not establish a priority of one of its mandatory goals over another.”

State law (RCW 36.70A.200) requires counties to establish a process to ensure that sites can be provided for facilities essential to the functioning of a community, even if legal or environmental obstacles would otherwise prevent them from being built. Essential facilities include such things as roads, schools, solid waste disposal facilities, and boat and barge landings.

The petition filed by the Friends of the San Juans asks the GMA board to consider a number of questions including whether the county ordinance violates state Growth Management Law by potentially allowing the construction of essential facilities in areas inconsistent with the county Comprehensive Plan’s goals, in various type of environmentally important or geologically hazardous areas, and in agricultural, forest and resource land.

Gaylord and County Council Chairman Richard Fralick argue the new county ordinance goes as far as it can in providing protections.

“The council adopted an ordinance that is unambiguous about its desire that essential public facilities be sited where they are the most compatible with the existing land use designation and it discourages locating them in critical areas or agricultural or resource lands,” Fralick said. “But we can’t adopt regulations that could absolutely prevent an essential facility from being built.”

The Uplands Essential Public Facility ordinance establishes a permitting process in which citizens and organizations can offer objections to the siting of a proposed facility, and provide evidence about the availability of alternate sites and the need to mitigate environmental impacts.

“The actual permitting process is where Friends and others can be most effective – and in a positive way,” Gaylord said. “But I don’t think that they can successfully argue that the Growth Management Act establishes a priority in which environmental concerns trump the need for essential public facilities.”

Normally, the Hearings Board would set a date to hear the case within 60-90 days. However the five regional Growth Management Hearings Boards will go out of existence in July, to be replaced by a single board which will deal with issues statewide. This case is expected to be one of the first the new GMA board will hear.

Meanwhile, according to Gaylord, the county’s ordinance remains in effect and is presumed to be valid under the law.

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