Opinion

Holding conservation hostage? Poor public policy | Guest column

We would like to thank County Council members Fralick, Miller, Pratt, Rosenfeld, and Stephens for their decision on Dec. 5 not to support an effort by Councilman Peterson to weaken the proposed update to our county's existing critical areas ordinance.

“Critical Areas” consist of wetlands, fish and wildlife habitat, aquifer recharge areas, geohazardous areas, and frequently flooded areas.

Specifically, Mr. Peterson suggested modifying, without any support from the other five council members, the obligation of property owners to mitigate future damage to critical areas resulting from changes to the development and use of their properties. (The updated CAO will continue to grandfather existing structures and uses.)

Mr. Peterson proposed that owners be allowed to offset any harm they cause by taking offsetting credit for the unrelated voluntary preservation and restoration of critical areas, performed anywhere in the county, by any public or private organization or individual, such as the Land Bank, the San Juan Preservation Trust, the National Park Service, Friends of the San Juans, and other entities engaged in salmon recovery efforts.

Our preservation lands and projects should not become a mitigation piggy bank for new activities that harm critical areas. If Mr. Peterson’s effort had been successful, the result would have been unfair and poor public policy.

It is unreasonable to argue that property owners should be subsidized by the good works of unrelated organizations and individuals that have conducted, and will conduct, work to preserve and restore our county's critical areas and salmon habitat.

If his proposal had been accepted, all of the preservation and restoration work performed in our county by public and private organizations, since their founding, would have been at risk of being offset by damage done by property owners who would no longer be motivated to avoid harm to critical areas.

Our county would have taken a huge step backwards in protecting the environment we all cherish.

Moreover, had Mr. Peterson’s effort been successful, there would likely have been a negative impact on potential funding sources, which would be reluctant to finance future restoration projects serving as a — “get out of jail free” card — for property owners who harm critical areas.

In the recent debate about renewal of the real estate tax that funds the Land Bank, Mr. Peterson and many of his supporters criticized the Land Bank, claiming it had strayed from its charter and founding principles. It is reasonable to assume that he and most of his supporters voted against the renewal.

Apparently, these same individuals now believe it is acceptable for the efforts of the Land Bank to be used to benefit private landowners.

Do they now believe this is consistent with the Land Bank’s charter and founding principles?

We encourage all council members to continue their efforts to reach a consensus on a balanced and reasonable outcome to the update of the critical areas ordinance and not to weaken the preservation and protection of our critical areas.

— Contributed by Marilyn Gresseth, Gretchen Gubelman, Clare Kelm on San Juan, Sharon Abreu, Irmgard Conley, Marta Nielson on Orcas, and Dixie Budke, San Olson Lopez.

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