CAO: solutions in search of elusive, pre-conceived problem | Guest Column

Tim Blanchard - Contributed photo
Tim Blanchard
— image credit: Contributed photo

By Tim Blanchard

San Juan County is in the throes of reviewing its critical areas ordinance.

It has been a long and expensive process, and there is no end in sight. Even after the “forced march” schedule of meetings and hearings on CAO topics this past autumn, only one of the CAO sections — probably the least controversial — has been revised and passed by Council.

Most recently, the wetlands section was inexplicably withdrawn from the planning commission in the midst of its consideration. Islanders are left to wonder, what is going on?

It has been almost a year since the county conducted a two-day workshop to discuss the Best Available Science synthesis prepared by its consultants. During that workshop, the council reassured the public (because the consultants reassured the council) that the questions raised there would be answered.

Specifically, the consultants committed to produce a matrix that included all the sections of the existing CAO regulations, identifying any deficiencies on a section-by-section basis.

Indeed, the county sought and obtained a considerable sum of federal grant money from the EPA based, in part, on its representation that it would produce the “smoking gun” report “that citizens and decision makers are asking for”— apparently regardless of whether any real problems exist — to demonstrate that our current land use rules are not working to protect critical areas.

Instead, some have suggested that the county is not required to identify actual problems with the current CAO.  There are major problems with this stance:

First, unless the county identifies the problem, it cannot rationally determine which approaches are available for its resolution.

Second, our Comprehensive Plan requires that the county “allow the use of property to the greatest extent possible while protecting critical areas functions and values” and “establish critical area requirements that are balanced and related to impacts.” This is not possible unless specific problems are identified.

Third, when imposing restrictions on the use of land, the county must show that the restrictions are constitutionally permitted.

Finally, I believe that taking action without first identifying a problem is inconsistent with sound government.

We have been waiting since February for an answer to the basic question — what problems are the planning staff, the consultants, and the Department of Ecology so absorbed in solving with new, enormously burdensome, and expensive proposed regulations?

Is this of any concern to you?

Our analysis of these proposals indicates that most parcels in the county will be affected by the proposed new restrictions, while the available data indicate that, under the current rules, islanders’ homes — as opposed to county roads or other land uses — are unlikely to threaten critical area functions and values.

The citizens of the county have repeatedly asked that their straightforward question be answered before the county imposes new restrictions. The county promised to answer the question. The county told the federal government that it would answer the question. But it has not.

The only conclusion consistent with honest government that I can see is that the county cannot identify such problems.

Let’s stop wasting county resources developing onerous solutions in search of problems, and direct our efforts instead to the technical amendments that are required and to reasonable enforcement of our current rules to protect our environment.

— Orcas Island’s Tim Blanchard is an attorney and vice-president of the Common Sense Alliance


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